Realizing the Benefits of Simulation Training

On Nov. 21, 2009, the Wheat Ridge (Colo.) Fire Protection District responded to a reported residential structure fire. According to the after-action report, within minutes of initiating interior operations, two members lost their primary means of egress and encountered a rapidly advancing fire. As a result, they initiated a mayday. During the subsequent rescue effort, the two members of the interior team and one firefighter working on the exterior sustained minor injuries. All three firefighters were treated and released from the hospital that night.

Although three firefighters sustained injuries during operations, the important thing is that they survived. And I believe that the department’s incident command training related to mayday procedures, held in our district’s simulation lab, directly contributed to the safe, efficient and proficient mitigation of this event within minutes of the initial mayday call. (For more about this incident, see the sidebar “Real-World Scare” below.)

It’s All About Decision-Making
But why is this type of training so effective? Psychologist Gary Klein’s research on recognition-primed decision-making tells us that people make decisions based on recognized patterns stored in their memories–patterns that are the result of previous experiences.1 These experiences allow the decision-maker to develop an “action script,” which is the game plan, or incident action plan, for any given situation. Prior to initiating an action script, people run a sort of mental simulation to determine an outcome. If the outcome of this mental simulation is favorable, the action script is implemented. If the mental simulation is not favorable, an alternate mental model is developed.

Additionally, according to Barbara Sorensen’s article, “Decision Superiority Process Model,” the ability to implement an action script is dependent on being able to acquire the right information at the right time and transfer that information into actionable knowledge.2 Simply put, you have to know what’s happening to understand what to do. Sorensen finds that the ability to develop an effective action script is dependent on situational awareness, relevant and accessible information, and experience (previous frame of reference).2

It’s also important to know that decision-making is influenced by an individual’s ability to manage stress. According to Kelly Wolgast’s research, under times of duress, people have difficulty accessing “stored” information, and two factors–bounded reality and convergent thinking–hinder the decision-making process. Bounded reality is the inability to accurately judge what’s happening (situational awareness). Convergent thinking is the narrowing of options or solutions to problems. When confronted with stress, inexperienced decision-makers default to making decisions that are “good enough”–they put into action the first thought/solution that comes to mind. This generally happens in situations involving extreme time constraints, when decisions need to be made in rapid sequence.3

Wheat Ridge Starts Simulating
With all this information about how people make decisions–and considering the costs associated with live-fire training–our fire district actively sought ways for the membership to gain experience in incident command, fireground tactical decision-making and stress management.

When weighing our options, we considered that, although new to the fire service, simulation training has a long-standing record of success within the aviation industry and military. As such, we decided to make it a part of our department’s training methodology.

The district purchased a multi-user dynamic simulation software program and constructed a simulation-training laboratory. We purposefully call the training area a laboratory because the training consists of running simulated fires in a controlled environment to develop our crewmembers’ cognitive decision-making process. Further, through the continual use of the system, we’re developing pragmatic decision-makers by experimenting with multiple simulated scenarios, thus enhancing crewmembers’ ability to recall “previous experiences” and developing a safe, effective and proficient action script.

All company-level and chief officers are currently required to complete a 32-hour simulation training program. Training focuses on the decision-making process, situational awareness, incident command, communication and the ability to develop and modify an incident action plan based upon “cues” given to the incident commander (IC) by role-players or the incident itself.

Using a sequential learning process, participants begin with “smaller” incidents and progress to large-scale multi-alarm incidents up to and including firefighter mayday events. Company-level personnel must complete four incidents as the first-due officer (initial IC) and serve as the rapid-intervention team (RIT) officer on two simulated mayday events. Chief officers are required to complete 10 incidents as the overall IC, four of which include multi-alarm assignments and mayday events.

Given the rarity of mayday events, crews receive invaluable training on recognizing and calling a mayday. Simulation training reinforces the district’s standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) as the principle building blocks for calling, acknowledging and mitigating a mayday event.

As with all simulations, mayday training is based on the decisions of the IC and company-level personnel. Simply put, each simulation is unique to its own set of circumstances based on the decisions of those operating within the simulation. Plus, the key learning objectives center on the modification of the incident action plan to mitigate two separate events simultaneously: a working fire and an active firefighter rescue.

The Bottom Line
Of course, simulation training should not be considered the end-all cure-all–firefighters still need to conduct live-fire training and practical, hands-on drills. However, our experience with simulation training has been extremely positive, leading me to believe that it should be a part of every organization’s leadership development toolbox.

As for us, our district’s use of simulation training serves one main goal: Develop the decision-making capabilities of our members. By being proactive in the use of simulation training and coaching our members to success, there is no question that we have enhanced the operational effectiveness of our membership. And although an objective score sheet is utilized to gauge performance within the training program, there is no better testament to the transference of knowledge from a virtual environment to a real-world environment than avoiding a double line-of-duty death during the course of a “routine” residential structure fire, like we did on Nov. 21, 2009.

The author has reported no conflicts of interest with the sponsor of this supplement. His department uses FLAME-SIM software.


  1. Klein, G. The recognition-primed decision (RPD) model: Looking back, looking forward. In C.E. Zsambok & G. Klein (Eds.), Naturalistic Decision Making. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, N.J., 1997.
  2. Sorensen, BH, Madni, AM, Madni, CC. Decision Superiority Process Model. Journal of Integrated Design and Process Science. 2008;12:37—46.
  3. Wolgast, K. Command Decision Making: Experience Counts. U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Project. 2005.

Real-World Scare
Lieutenant credits simulation training with saving his life
On Nov. 21, 2009, two members of the Wheat Ridge (Colo.) Fire Protection District found themselves in a dangerous environment, having lost their primary means of egress and facing a rapidly advancing fire. Fortunately, just hours before the call, these members had completed the 32-hour simulation training program required for the department’s company-level and chief officers. One of the critical components of this training involves when to call a mayday. Having just completed this training, the lieutenant in trouble was able to properly identify that he was in a mayday situation and made the call. He later indicated that had he not had this training–training that reinforced over and over again that there should be no hesitation in calling a mayday in situations like the one he faced–he may have waited much longer to call for help. The lieutenant credits the simulation training with affecting his willingness to make the call and, ultimately, saving his life.

One year ago, two of our department’s personnel had to call a mayday while working this residential structure fire. I believe the firefighters survived the close call because of the simulation-based training those members had conducted just hours before the event.

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