Next-gen firefighter training could involve VR

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As outdoor fire disasters become more intense and frequent, fire departments are turning to technology to improve training programs. Firefighting units in both the U.S. and Australia are starting to use virtual reality to simulate emergencies. Doing so gives trainees a taste of real-world dangers and challenges without putting them in harm’s way.

In Australia, a startup called FLAIM Systems is deploying its VR firefighting software to train both professionals and everyday people. In the U.S., California fire departments are ready to scale a VR program that recently completed a successful trial.

There are many benefits to using VR for firefighting and other emergency services training. FLAIM Systems’ founder and CEO, James Mullins, summarizes, “The whole point of VR is that we can put people in a traditionally dangerous situation, let people make decisions, and let people make mistakes.”

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FLAIM Systems’ Timely Rise

James Mullins founded FLAIM Systems in 2017 through Australia’s Deakin University as an associate professor. Since then, his company has grown rapidly and now supports firefighting training protocols in 16 countries. FLAIM Systems has a presence in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the U.K. outside of the U.S. and Australia.

The startup’s technology generates realistic renders of various elements, including fire, foam, smoke, and water in simulated environments. Trainees can fight different kinds of fires through their headsets, such as house fires, wildfires, or aircraft fires. They also wear traditional headsets and heat suits that allow FLAIM Systems’ software to replicate the temperatures that firefighters would feel depending on their proximity and orientation to digital fires. 

For example, as trainees get closer to virtual fires, their heat suits get hotter. FLAIM System’s technology can even replicate forces that simulate fire hose use and biological characteristics, such as heart rate and breathing.

The Australian Information Industry Association named FLAIM Systems the startup of the year in 2019. As bushfires ravage the country, FLAIM Systems provides a safe way for firefighters to train more thoroughly for dangerous scenarios. 

California Fire Departments Also Testing VR Training

In October, California’s Cosumnes Fire Department also began experimenting with VR for firefighter training. The organization partnered with RiVR and Pico Interactive to trial a new training system for 20 recruits. The program was successful and enabled recruits to experience the challenges of realistic fire emergencies. 

The fire department captain, Julie Rider, commented on how realistic the VR experience was. “I could feel my heart rate climb as I looked around the room, seeing where the fire started, watching the rapid rate of fire spread. It was amazing to experience the inherent risk, extreme danger and fire intensity without feeling any of the dangerous effects from the fire.”

Another positive consequence of VR-based firefighter training is that it is more environmentally safe. Rather than create real smoke, discharge foam, or release harmful pollutants into the air, departments can train recruits without burning any substances. They also don’t have to use as much water during training, relying instead on simulated behaviors. 

VR is already popular in the gaming world. However, VR developers like FLAIM Systems, RiVR, and Pico Interactive are showing us how the technology can be useful for many other purposes. Pretty soon, we’ll all have chairs like Neo in The Matrix that enable us to download and learn skills in virtual environments whenever we want. Personally, I can’t wait.

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