Interactive tools to train NYC firefighters

New York City Fire Department

The New York City Fire Department, the world's largest municipal fire agency, is exploring the prospect of training its uniformed personnel on computer-based virtual scenarios to enhance their classroom instruction and field exercises.

That's not to say a firefighter will pick up a Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. PlayStation or a Microsoft Corp. Xbox anytime soon, but they may eventually interact in a highly sophisticated, graphically intensive gaming environment.

For example, one scenario might depict a fire engine racing to a scene where users would be subjected to random variables and face critical decisions — just as they are in real life. But they could also use software programs to test their knowledge on material from a certain course or refresh their memories on how to operate specialized equipment in an interactive manner.

"So we are just very, very open as an education arm of the community that sees we have a moral obligation," said Stanley Klein, FDNY's e-learning coordinator. "I mean, if we're dealing with people who are willing to risk personal injury for the social good of civilians and property, then we, as a community, have a moral obligation to deliver the best training we can and to raise that standard. So, we want to look at any way to do it."

The fire department is working with Springfield, Va.-based Innovative Technology Application Inc. (ITA) — which has designed extensive, advanced, and interactive training and testing simulations and scenarios for the Defense and Energy departments, among other agencies — to provide analyses and recommendations to the Homeland Security Department's Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP).

The fire department has submitted a formal report to ODP for approval and funding, said Stephan Hittmann, FDNY's executive director for fire and life safety. Even if federal funding is unavailable, the department will proceed in some capacity with developing such learning materials, he added.

Mike Forgy, branch chief for the office's state and local exercise division, said other companies have other types of gaming software available, but called this potential project unique. The creation of such sophisticated gaming scenarios could lead to national models for other fire departments and first responder agencies, such as bomb squads, emergency medical services and law enforcement special operations units, he added.

"That's sort of the plan," he said. "Get a model, see how people react to it, then take it to another level.... We're looking at everything and trying to nail down what is good, what is helpful and, maybe, what's not so good and not so helpful."

Allan Hardy, vice president of ITA's homeland security division, said development of such software programs could be modified for use by smaller fire jurisdictions that lack the time and money to send their personnel for specialized instruction.

For New York City, ITA may first develop an interactive program based on the battalion chief's course, which is taught several times a year. Within it, 15 scenarios — including those involving hazardous materials and commercial and high-rise building fires — are taught through more traditional means, Hardy said.

"In other words, they present it in the classroom, they talk about it, then they show a picture of the building and say how would we respond to this and they talk through it," he said.

"Whereas if you built it with a virtual environment, you could have fire trucks arrive on the scene, you could position them on the left side of the building, the right side of the building, you could run the hose this way, you could see the results of that decision," Hardy said. "And maybe it was the best decision or maybe it wasn't the best decision, and you could see the fire being abated or perhaps not being abated or perhaps, worst case, it gets worse on you."

As users make certain decisions, the virtual scenario — which could run 15 to 20 minutes, a critical time period from the initial notification of a fire — would adapt. For example, virtual people would tell users they saw a child inside the burning building or that a flammable substance is stored on the second floor.

"You would get information as the scenario unfolds and you [would] have to make a decision on what you want to do," said Hardy, a retired military colonel and former adviser to senior Pentagon officials. "Do you send someone in for the kid, or maybe it was an unconfirmed report of a child and that's where the most intense flames are."

"It's really a decision-support tool and a mentoring tool so that people can work through this and then based on decisions they make, they get feedback," he added.

For New York City's "bravest," the development of such materials might become a significant learning component for trainees as the department recovers from its devastating losses on Sept. 11, 2001.

That day, 343 firefighters died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and several hundred more have retired because of injuries suffered during the attack or from other lingering effects. "And we have a very young, largely new membership in the fire department and we have to get them up to speed" as soon as possible, Hittmann said. "And we're looking at different approaches to do that."

Sept. 11 also created new mission areas for first responders. Police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders nationwide must also prepare to confront uncommon, almost unimaginable threats, such as weapons of mass destruction.

"Realistically, we're living in times right now where not only are we doing the traditional training of how you rescue people and put out fires, but now what do you do if you go into a fire and there's some evidence that there's some kind of radiological presence there?" Klein said. "So this whole area of terrorism and preparedness is requiring that lots of new training areas be made available and distributed quickly."

FDNY provides about 7,000 hours of course work to a very decentralized workforce of nearly 16,000 uniformed members, emergency medical workers, and civilians spread out in 350 companies and in as many emergency medical service crews, Hittmann said. The department offers about 100 training courses in just about every rank as well as emergency management technician, communication, information technology, applied hydraulics and chemistry classes, he added.

It's difficult to deliver training when you have to take personnel off the line, close firehouses, suspend ambulance tours and pay overtime, he said. The department goes on about 4,500 runs daily, totaling 1.5 million a year.

Even before the terrorist attacks, Hittmann, who has 25 years of military and government service, and his staff were exploring synchronous and asynchronous instruction, distance learning, and online and e-learning with other companies and universities. "Clearly this is an important part of our future," he said, "and we acknowledge that it's not a substitute, but a supplement to what we train and how we train as we continue to try to raise the bar for the folks who are prepared to take the risks that they take." n

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