Implementing Simulation Training in Your Department

Building an effective simulation program requires significant planning—deciding where the simulation center will be housed, what software will be used, what the goals of the program will be, and more. In a roundtable discussion, several fire service leaders who have implemented or are in the process of implementing simulation training share tips on executing this type of program. Following is an excerpt of the feedback from Steve Walton, division chief of training for the Henderson (Nev.) Fire Department; Tim Capehart, fire technology coordinator for Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, Calif.; Frank Odermann, assistant fire chief for the Billings (Mont.) Fire Department; and Mike Clemens, assistant chief for the Montgomery County (Md.) Fire & Rescue Service.

Briefly describe your simulation technology.
Mike Clemens (MC): We use three types of simulation training: a human patient simulation lab, a driver training simulator and a command development training center, where we teach and test all our certified chiefs in incident command competencies each year as per Montgomery County, Md., regulation.

Steve Walton (SW): Our simulation program is focused on incident command functions. Our simulation technology runs commercially available special effects software using video and still images. Each scenario runs off of one computer with eight video cards, which send the images to separate screens where officers are stationed for the exercise.

We felt we conducted excellent task-level training situations on the training ground, but were lacking in creating a learning and feedback environment for company officers and battalion chiefs for tactical and strategic decision-making—a perfect application for a simulation program.

Our department conducts a Command Training Center for all officers three times per year. The simulation program is an integral part of the officer continuing education on a monthly basis as well through “sets and reps.” The simulation program is used in the captain promotional process and is the foundation of our current impetus to create an incident commander certification program and fire quality assurance program.

Frank Odermann (FO): We have an Incident Command System (ICS) Training Center. The training is delivered via gaming software that uses Xbox technology and gaming hardware.

Tim Capehart (TC): We use an incident command training software that we’ve considering installing in a tractor-trailer rig so it can be towed around from station to station. We have quite a few remote stations in Kern County. We hope to use simulations in company-level training, promotional exams, post-incident analysis, implementation of standard operating procedures, etc.

What resources are available to tap into for funding/grant funding for simulation technology?
FO: The Billings ICS Training Center is funded through donations from agencies that we interface with through mutual aid and incident management. Contributors to this project included all three local refineries, Exxon, Conoco and CHS; the Yellowstone County Rural Fire Council, which represents all fire departments within the county; the Lockwood Fire District, a neighboring fire department; RiverStone Health (the County’s Health Department); the Billings Fire Department; and the Yellowstone County Department of Emergency Services.

TC: The Bakersfield and Kern County Fire Departments have a contract with Bakersfield College, so we were able to purchase our system with college funds.

MC: We’re able to get a lot of the simulation equipment through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and state grants for ALS programs for paramedic training programs. If you don’t have funding to purchase, I would recommend seeking out state or federal grants, like the Fire Grants program and the Homeland Security funding using the UASI grants.

I was fortunate to have a fire chief who supported the vision and support to fund our three projects. Many of the traditional ways had out-lived there effect on the students. Today’s simulation is so realistic and less problematic.

SW: We were able to secure an Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG). This helped with computer hardware and software, scenario development and personnel training costs. The AFG funding was extremely helpful in helping us get our program off the ground. The city had also recently gone through a computer/monitor upgrade, which allowed the fire department to use some of the “retired” hardware for the simulator build up.

How do you build support for a simulation program among line firefighters? Among administration/city officials? Who else needs to support the program?
TC: I believe the folks in the field have to see the practical relationship to what they do on calls, and how practicing different types of calls in a simulator will build more confidence when they respond on actual calls. The software must provide a certain level of realism to get the folks in the field to buy in. Administration/city officials, on the other hand, will react more to the cost savings that simulations can provide while at the same time keeping companies available in their first-in areas. Finally, the training bureau must buy in to the concept.

FO: A real advantage that we’ve used to attain buy-in is the availability of video tutorials and program evaluations available on our software manufacturer’s website. A picture speaks a thousand words, and seeing is believing. Video testimonials from fire administration and line personnel in departments that utilize this program have provided a powerful influence and lend credibility to the program.

SW: Whatever the software program or level of technology for simulation, the credibility will be lost if it doesn’t match a consistent and practiced method within the organization.

In our department, a lot of groundwork had to be done before we could present a simulation program. We spent many hours over many months in review of our operational capabilities and expectations. Through a working group that represented all stakeholders of our department, we took a very detailed look at our processes and the way we held ourselves accountable to follow our own standards. We made changes where necessary and updated SOPs as needed to ensure they supported the efforts of our crews to accomplish the job consistent with those capabilities and expectations.

We found, however, that a simulation program is only a piece of a bigger puzzle that includes clear expectations for current officers, a valid probationary program, annual appraisals that include evaluation of emergency scene effectiveness, a training program for aspiring officers and a testing process that matches the job. The simulation piece supports and enhances all of those efforts.

A big mistake is to think that a simulation program is the end goal. Our goal was, and remains to be, safe and effective emergency scene operations. The simulation program is one of the pieces that support that goal. All of the stakeholders share the goal and, therefore, all of the stakeholders support the various ways we seek to support it.

As we built the various pieces and put them in place, the simulation program was a natural progression. We had typical resistance to change and suspicion of a new process, but allowing participants to provide feedback in the process and adapting according to their feedback was also critical in gaining buy-in and support to the simulator program.

What’s the first step in integrating simulations into your training program? Next steps?
MC: The first step is always to ask what you’re looking to accomplish with simulation—BLS, ALS, new training, continuing education? After you define what you’ll use the technology for, start looking at the different simulation systems and software choices for your purchase. Then ask yourself, what type of fires or driver training exercises can I reproduce in simulation to support our courses to make someone proficient at the best practices? Also, don’t integrate simulation into your training programs unless you have defined objectives that are realistic and achievable.

SW: The development of objective performance expectations as well as performance measurement instruments was critical before even thinking about putting the simulator program into place. We went out on the road and visited other departments that had simulator programs in place and learned from them.

An important factor to achieve in building and integrating a simulator program is to overcome the statement, “Well, if it was a real situation, I would have done it differently.” That is poison to integrating a simulation program.

TC: You must evaluate the capabilities of your existing hardware and factor in how you will train the folks in the field on how to use the software. All of that should be done before installing the system.

FO: For us, the first step in the integration of the ICS Training Center will be to familiarize our personnel with the new technology. As mentioned, the training is delivered via gaming software that uses Xbox technology and gaming hardware. We expect to see our younger employees, who have grown up with this type of technology, accept and become familiar with the delivery methods more quickly than those of us whose formative years did not include video gaming. However, we expect that mastering the simulation software and controllers will be relatively simple for personnel of all ranks to achieve.

The next steps will be to train our battalion chiefs and training officers to operate the equipment and conduct training evolutions. Training for company officers will follow and include minimum expected level of competency in ICS, with emphasis in areas like scene size-up, communications, appropriate utilization and deployment of resources, fireground strategy and tactics, and personnel accountability.

What challenges should be expected in integrating simulation training? How did you overcome those challenges in your department?
SW: One challenge is to find a few technical experts who can help build the system that will work best for you. You also need to find tech-savvy firefighters (officers if possible) to build the scenarios, based on accurate building construction, fire behavior, deployment and other department-specific factors. Every department probably has many tech-savvy personnel to recruit, but the key is to get the right ones who will work as members of the simulation team rather than working too free-form and getting the plan off track.

Another challenge is to communicate with all of the command officers (battalion chiefs in our department) in the creation of the scenarios and a consistent teaching and evaluation method for each scenario type.

We overcame other challenges by constantly evaluating the factors affecting success, or lack thereof, of each attempt and working to improve those that needed attention.

TC: For us, the main challenge was training the folks in the field on how to use it, and then integrating it into how we do business. Also, Kern County is one of the largest counties in the state, with fire stations in some remote areas, and we had to determine how to share equipment among departments. We had to make decisions about how to appropriate the trailer that housed the equipment so we could take it to all the stations.

MC: Like any new device in the service, there’s always a learning curve. By having a core group of trainers familiar with using the simulation program, you can learn from their experience for future teaching. There are resources on the Internet and user-groups to consult with. Additionally, the Help Desk is and has always been useful. Sometimes you might need a company’s IT person to make a site visit to work out a problem. We were lucky to have an instructor who had prior military simulation experience. In fact, he was able to design a user’s manual for one of the systems that is used by the simulator company today.

What are some of the logistical aspects of integrating simulation training that need to be addressed from the outset?
TC: We’re going through that right now. The decision we’re faced with is, do we build the simulator into a couple of classrooms, or do we install it in a tractor-trailer that can be taken out into the field, thus keeping apparatus in their first-in areas? Or maybe we need to do both.

SW: You need to select a location that can accommodate the audio/visual needs of simulation. Our system is fixed and works off several monitors powered by a single CPU with multiple video cards. The area must also be large enough to accommodate instructors/evaluators as well as participants.

MC: Location: mobile vs. fixed; curriculum; building resources, such as lighting, power, air, security and computing power; monies for educating your instructors, students; and more than anything, schedule!
We prefer a secure building over a mobile unit due to the complexity of the computer systems today to run a large capacity of programs. This allows for less set up time and resources, better climate control and bathrooms on site to help with motion sickness, which can occur on some of the driving systems. When we’re at a fixed site, we could have more support personnel available if needed.

FO: Space allocation, funding and configuration of the training center are key logistical considerations. Our center is housed in our headquarters’ fire station, where our training department, battalion chiefs and administration are located. Co-locating the center with these departments will enhance our ability to coordinate and conduct training there.

Another thing to think about is whether your center will be open to other departments. Our center is designed so that any department may arrive with their own IC and any number of company officers. The individual external agencies will be able to drive their own incident command vehicle into a bay where they will view the fire scene (from an IC’s perspective) on a large monitor in front of their command vehicle. This is an important component of our center, as it allows every department to use its own vehicle, communications equipment and materials. Using their own equipment adds realism and value to their training experience. The rest of the training center is housed in a separate room in the same building.

One of the greatest potential benefits with this concept will be realized when multiple departments train together in mutual-aid type scenarios. There is no substitute for the value gained from face-to-face interaction with our mutual-aid partners. Working relationships and procedures established through training directly with our mutual-aid agencies will pay dividends when operating together on a real incident.

Simulations come in many formats and program types. What do you believe is most successful and why? How do you rank options in terms of priorities, especially on a limited budget?
MC: Once the basics are mastered and the students have a grasp on assessment and treatment, scenario-based learning works the best. Letting the student be hands-on and integrate what they have learned thus far are paramount for ingraining knowledge that will be long-lasting. You can keep costs down by doing smaller scenarios that focus of one aspect of learning.

SW: The ability to drop in community-specific photos is very important. Portability is important in order to push simulations out to stations via Internet. Of course, the ability to insert realistic fire, smoke, hazmat, etc., is also critical to the software capabilities. As long as the simulations are supported by SOPs and adequate instruction, the format does not need to be elaborate.

Simulations are an integral part of the overall incident command training program in our department. If we consider all of the national fire service tragedies that have occurred due to inconsistent or inadequate incident commander performance, simulations—along with other department processes—should rank among the highest priorities.

TC: A simulator that allows you to be interactive offers users a more realistic experience.

What differences are you seeing in fire crew performance since implementing a simulation program?
SW: The simulation program in our department has focused on tactical and strategic decision-making. Although the incident command ranks have been the primary focus, the decision-making process and priorities permeate all levels of the crew. Differences we’ve noted since implementing simulation include a more confident and safe workforce and a higher degree of effectiveness of on-scene operations due to reduced second-guessing of expectations.

MC: We’ve seen an improvement in the students’ level of confidence and professionalism and their ability to learn best practices by doing it without the chance of getting hurt or doing any damage to any property. It gives real-time feedback to the students.

Is there anything you’d like to add about simulation programs or your training centers in particular?
TC: I feel that with simulators, the potential is there to save departments quite a bit of money, and improve fireground operations and safety. If you can keep the engines in the first-due area, you can save on fuel, brakes, and wear and tear on the equipment.

FO: An exciting evolution in the development of our program is that we have partnered with Montana State University in Billings to develop an accredited certification level of competency as well. One incentive the university is exploring is to offer credits for completion of this higher level of certification that will apply toward a field-related degree program. This will provide incentive and opportunity for personnel to attain a higher level of certified competency than the minimum level we will expect of all our company officers.

MC: We like using simulation because it allows us to start with a basic scenario where you can objectively evaluate a crew and constructively give them feedback. If the scenario is recorded for their review, they can watch themselves either meet those best practices or self-evaluate areas of improvement. Each student can be tested and evaluated at the same scenario, and it validates the training and testing. Students can make mistakes in a virtual reality world without injuring a patient, burning down a structure or doing damage to an emergency vehicle.

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