Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Virtual reality

Kaitlin Secord   


How virtual reality can be used to enhance firefighter training

The use of virtual reality, this three-dimensional computer-generated environment, has been incorporated into different avenues of first responder training and the technology is growing quickly. Photo: Urupong/ Adobe Stock

Training within the fire service is as crucial as putting out fires – ever-changing technology makes doing the job more multi-faceted in approach than ever. Integrating up and coming tech, like virtual reality, into firefighter training can provide unique, safe and efficient learning opportunities. 

As defined by the Virtual Reality Society, “Virtual Reality (VR) describes a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed in this environment. While there, they can manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.”

The use of this three-dimensional computer-generated environment has been incorporated into different avenues of first responder training, and the technology is growing quickly. New advancements in virtual reality software are becoming more readily available to everyday consumers. 

A white paper called Effective Fireground Training During COVID-19 Related Emergency Declarations by Kevin Sofen and Scott Eskwitt of Smart Firefighting looked at the economic, environmental and human cost to traditional training methods and compared them to that of virtual reality training. 


The white paper stated that by using VR training, “apparatus and fuel-powered equipment isn’t used, providing economic and environmental savings. Water doesn’t flow, materials aren’t burned, pollutants aren’t breathed or absorbed, and PPE doesn’t have to be washed.
Finally, and most importantly, VR minimizes the risk of serious injury or death.”

NFPA annual tracking showed that in 2018 there were over 8,000 training injuries, which accounted for 14 per cent of all firefighter injuries and 11 training deaths, which accounted for 17.2 per cent of all firefighter deaths.

Research conducted by the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit indicated that injuries occurring during work account for 90 per cent of all time-loss claims, affecting one in 50 firefighters each year.

On the topic of environmental impacts, the NFPA noted little research has been done to quantify the environmental impact of live fire training facilities, but by nature, these facilities are significant water consumers and are carbon emitters.

Live fire training is part of the NFPA approved regular curriculum, virtual reality offers additional unique benefits. Michael Williams-Bell, a principle investigator and professor at Durham College, has spent the last 18 years working in collaboration with the fire services. The Enriching Firefighter Training through the Development of a Novel Virtual Reality Training Simulation for Personalized Precision Scale and Resilience Training is a project between Durham College, Ontario Tech University, the city of Oshawa, Ont., and Oshawa Fire Services. 

“Crews go through training, learning how to do the physical techniques of things without always understanding the cause and effect of their actions,” said Williams-Bell. “Virtual reality training modules will allow firefighters to see the results of their actions – positive or negative.” 

Durham College hosted a workshop that allowed researchers to bring in industry partners to start to come up with ideas for what types of research would be of interest. That’s when Williams-Bell posed the question of ‘what can’t you train for?’ to the Oshawa fire department and the idea of virtual training came up. 

“One of the training officers mentioned that a virtual training program for things like structural collapse and other difficult to recreate scenarios would be an excellent training tool,” he said. 

The research team started discussions in 2017 and received funding through the College and Community Social Innovation Fund in April 2020. 

The hopes for this project are “to use virtual reality to simulate uncontrolled fire scenarios such as building collapse situations and improve training for firefighters using immersive life-like, experiential learning. This technology would elicit physiological and psychological responses similar to the human reactions of a real fire scenario with the major difference being that there is less risk of injury,” said Williams-Bell. 

“We are designing this program to enhance training practices and its availability – not replace current methods approved by the NFPA.” 

On the topic of enhancing training, Williams-Bell mentions engaging in bio feedback, which is using wearables to monitor a firefighter’s physiological responses to see how the virtual simulations are impacting crews. 

“This data would allow us to implement training techniques to help firefighters handle stress. Our hope is that this in some way could help with PTSI, whether through an exposure therapy approach or better preparing crews to handle themselves while doing their jobs,” said Williams-Bell. 

Progress on the Enriching Firefighter Training through the Development of a Novel Virtual Reality Training Simulation for Personalized Precision Scale and Resilience Training project is entering its development phase now, with the hopes of having a prototype complete by spring 2023. Williams-Bell’s hopes this project will bring VR training to large-scale departments. 

FutureShield is hoping to fill the gap for a VR training option for smaller and volunteer departments. 

Through the Desjardin GoodSpark Grant, Kim Nielsen, retired training officer with Kingston FD in Ontario, alongside service partner, DriveWise Safety, have set out to develop a cost-effective and accessible training program.  

Using XVR, or three-dimensional virtual reality (3DVR) will give fire crews the ability to create training scenarios that “are most relevant to their learning objectives.” 

“This training system reinforces incident command system processes at all levels, promotes effective communication flow within the command-and-control environment for both daily incidents and mass scale disasters,” said Nielsen. 

The program for a small department including XVR and Nielsen’s presence to guide the training will cost $2,000 for two days of incident command training. 

Nielsen ran an initial training session for the Ontario Fire College in May, which allowed him to setup for further training and best practices moving forward. 

“We could see people learning from watching their peers take a turn on the program. They tried different approaches to management and incident command,” said Nielsen. 

The XVR program is entirely self-contained, making it easy for Nielsen to travel between departments to host these training sessions. He is also able to curate different programming for each department, based on their training needs. 

“Every department is different because every region they’re covering is different. To make one generic program would limit this tool that is supposed to help break limits when it comes to training,” said Nielsen. 

For firefighters, minimizing risk is training is key to improved safety. “Understanding the current limitations of training allows for a future of safer, more in-depth training,” said Williams-Bell. “VR can be anything we want it to be and with the way technology develops, it will continue to help resolve obstacles when it comes to firefighter training.” 

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