Simulations Enhance Safety Officer Training

Training in the fire service has gone through many evolutions. When I first joined the fire service in the mid-1970s, the principle method of training was hands-on, practical evolutions, along with limited use of AV equipment (movie reels and slides). During my early years as a volunteer and later in my recruit academy in 1978, we did all live-fire burns in Type 4 and 5 structures; we had 13 live burns in my 12-week recruit academy. In the 80s, the fire service quickly adapted to VCRs and computers for training. The 90s brought more computer technology and PowerPoint. As the 21st century dawned, technology went wild: CDs, DVDs, live video feeds, cell phone cameras, mobile video and the Internet.

Among these high-tech tools: the use of simulation for fire service training, from line firefighters to command officers.

Simulation for Command Safety
In 2007, I was the deputy chief of operations for the Kissimmee (Fla.) Fire Department and had the opportunity to attend a five-day Command Simulation class at the Central Florida Fire Academy. After the first day of training, I was sold on this method of instruction.

Command simulation training, when applied with immersive instruction, allows the course objectives to be taught in such a way that the student has hands-on, interactive experiences. I observed command officers, newly promoted and inexperienced at the start of the class, develop the confidence and command presence to be successful incident commanders by the end of the week. The instructor accomplished this by immersing the officers in the simulations and reinforcing the utilization of proper command strategy and tactics.

After the course, I sought more exposure to this method of instruction. I tracked down the instructors from my Command Simulation class, and eventually became an instructor in the use of simulations for fire service training. At this time I was also one of the Eastern Directors for the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and was involved in teaching the organization’s Incident Safety Officer (ISO) certification classes. I approached the FDSOA’s board of directors and asked if I could add a third day to the two-day ISO class so we could include the use of simulations. We were given the go-ahead and proceeded to create the Safety Simulation ISO class.

Don’t get me wrong: The FDSOA’s Pro Board-certified ISO class was (and is) by the far the best training for ISOs and command officers. But even so, it lacked a way for students to apply their newly developed skills. I experienced this first-hand. When I became an FDSOA-certified ISO for my department in Virginia Beach in 1997, I was apprehensive about applying my newfound knowledge on the fireground. So I truly understood the need and importance of involving simulation to augment this course. Using simulation in ISO certification provides an interactive and immersive way for students to take what they were taught in the classroom, course books and PowerPoint presentations and apply it during practical, controlled and interactive scenarios.

How It Works
The goal was to provide ISO students with the opportunity to actively apply and hone their skills in a simulation environment, free from the risk of causing any firefighter injuries or fatalities.

The student is given the opportunity to practically apply a newly learned skill to a simulated scenario to reinforce the skill while also being evaluated on the application of the skill. Example: ISO students learn about the “art of reading smoke” first, then complete several related simulations. They’re presented scenarios with a variety of smoke conditions and are asked to describe what they’re observing, state the risks and dangers that are presented, and then describe what actions they would initiate as the on-scene ISO. After each simulation, an informal evaluation is conducted.

The class also involves scenarios for students to demonstrate their ability to “read the building.” The students are evaluated on how they identify building construction features and the effects that the products of combustion can have on these building construction types. It’s critical that ISOs are able to read building construction risks to prevent injuries or fatalities to citizens and firefighters. The use of simulations is invaluable during these lessons because it allows the instructor to evaluate the students’ ability to apply the skill set.

If the simulation doesn’t have a positive outcome, or if the student performs the skill below performance standards, the instructor will explain the recommended improvements. Then the instructor can run the student back through the same simulation. This accomplishes two things: 1) It reinforces the proper skills to the students, and 2) it allows the student to perform another simulation, while applying these reinforced skills, resulting in a positive outcome. This allows the student to gain more confidence and be more proficient at the desired skill set.

Other Simulation Benefits
It’s rewarding to watch students become immersed in simulation exercises. I’ve witnessed a student jump backward and prepare to flee the scene when an LP gas truck explosion occurred during the simulation. It was that realistic. I’ve also watched experienced command officers become overwhelmed and taxed due to the simulation being elevated–by design–to further develop their skill set. These simulations are as real as you can get without involving the risks of injury and damage to equipment involved when conducting practical and live-burn training.

Simulation for safety training provides a host of other benefits, too. Simulation is:

  • Cost-effective. It’s not practical during these difficult financial times for most departments to conditionally build training props, or to obtain acquired structures for safety training. Simulations, however, can be used over and over at very little expense.
  • Customizable. You can research a particular fire department and design the simulations to match the types of fires to which the department responds most frequently. If a department has had a near-miss or a serious fire incident, a simulation can be designed to address those challenges.
  • Adaptable to incidents beyond the fireground. If you want to conduct specialty training, simulations can reflect technical rescue, hazmat, marine and emergency management incidents.
  • Effective for assessing performance. The use of simulations for tactical problems during promotional processes allows the assessors to rate and score the candidates based on interactive, realistic performance.
  • Effective for teaching new and seasoned officers. Simulation provides a safe environment for new officers to practice incident command and fire tactics and strategy, but it’s also good for all officers to routinely go through simulation training, especially if their call volume is low. For many departments, firefighting is a high-risk/low-frequency activity; the consequences are unforgiving.

But perhaps the greatest benefit: simulation training enhances safety for citizens. Citizens deserve and want to have efficient and highly trained firefighters to respond to their request for emergency services; command simulation training ensures that firefighters have that training and response capability. At the same time, simulation training supports the Everyone Goes Home Program’s 16 Life Safety Initiatives. In an article from the FDSOA by Dave Murphy, “12 Ways to Reduce Firefighter Injuries” (, the author recommends that the incident commander must always consider risk vs. gain and provide frequent, realistic and modernized training.

I’ve also used simulations to teach firefighters how to use of the “fire service” feature on elevators, and how to perform pump panel operations and positive-pressure ventilation. So the more the fire service can use simulations in training, the safer the fire service will become. The opportunity to try a new tactic under simulation helps trainees develop proficiency in the new skill and builds confidence in the practice. This is especially beneficial if there is significant resistance to the new tactic. Once firefighters have confidence that the tactic will work, they will be much more likely to use it.

A New Tradition?
Although the fire service is a very traditional profession, members are always striving to develop new ways to perform the many life-saving tasks required during an emergency and to deliver the best professional customer service. Command simulation has been taught and utilized at some of the largest firefighter conferences to teach firefighters new skills and hone the existing skills necessary to safely and efficiently perform firefighting operations. Although there’s a cost to use the latest technology and training aides available, the outcomes are invaluable. And other types of training carry a cost too–over time, the costs of command simulation are less than the recurring costs to build, operate and maintain training props and burn buildings. Further, many new laws, standards and regulations prevent the use of live-fire training, making practical application of classroom knowledge virtually impossible in a training scenario that doesn’t include computer-generated fires.

Since I started in the fire service in 1975, I’ve seen many things change. Sometimes the changes seemed hard to adapt to or implement at the time; some of the changes were effective and others weren’t. When I was exposed to command simulation in 2007, I immediately saw the benefits in terms of citizen and firefighter safety. It’s for this reason that I believe command simulation training is an overwhelmingly positive change for the fire service–and one that’s here to stay.

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