Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 28, 2022.

Full Immersion

Augmented and virtual reality technologies aren’t just for video games. For the fire service, they could supplement live training and provide access to a galaxy of firefighting scenarios, from electric vehicle fires to oil spills. But cutting-edge tech doesn’t come cheap.


hundreds of hours of live fire training without incident. The 42-year-old firefighter/paramedic was a 13-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, serving on Engine 3 at Station 3, one of the busiest engines at one of the busiest stations in the country. But on October 7, 2020, a routine training exercise ended in Cortez falling three stories to his death.

According to media reports and official SFFD statements, Cortez was working with fellow firefighters to douse a blaze on the third floor of a tower inside the department’s Mission District training facility when, for unknown reasons, he went back onto the fire escape he had used to climb the tower. At that point, according to a report released by the department, Cortez “inadvertently” opened the gate on a wye—a V-shaped valve that is used to connect two firehoses. With no second hose attached, water gushed through the open gate at over 100 pounds per square inch of pressure, striking Cortez in the chest and knocking him over the railing. He sustained a severe head injury in the fall and was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

While firefighter training deaths aren’t especially common in the United States, they do occur. Between 1977 and 2018, an average of nearly nine firefighter training deaths occurred annually, according to an NFPA report released in 2020. Worldwide, no comprehensive statistics are kept on firefighter training fatalities, but there is ample evidence to suggest other countries experience as many or more than in the US. In November, nine firefighters died in Brazil when a cave collapsed on them during a training exercise on technical rescue. “Training is a vital part of fire department operations,” the authors of the NFPA report wrote, “but it too often results in needless deaths and injuries.”


In addition to firefighter training, experts see opportunities for VR and AR technologies to aid in the recruitment of new firefighters and for teaching fire safety to the public

Citing similar safety concerns—as well as costs and logistical complications—the US military has in recent years embraced augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies as alternatives to live training. In March 2021, the US Army announced it would award Microsoft with a 10-year contract worth more than $20 billion to build 120,000 AR headsets to train soldiers in combat.

Now, a growing number of experts say fire services in the US and beyond should also embrace AR and VR technology as a way to train firefighters while significantly reducing the risk of injury or death. These training methods are collectively known as immersive learning, where users don headsets, glasses, or goggles that display a realistic but virtual scenario in front of them. Users are active participants in the scenarios, but without the risks that accompany live training. This type of immersive learning, proponents argue, would also reduce the environmental impact of firefighter training and offer numerous opportunities for specialized training that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain. In some areas of the world, such as Europe and Australia, many fire departments are already using immersive learning, but the technology hasn’t gained as much traction in the US. Experts predict that will likely change over the next decade, as they envision immersive learning becoming a standard, universal component of firefighter training.

“You can dramatically reduce the cost of training accidents. You can reduce the risk of cancers. You can train firefighters to become better firefighters, especially in responding to unique hazards,” said Jeff Godfredson, former chief of the fire department in Melbourne, Australia, who now works as the director of customer relations for FLAIM Systems, an Australian manufacturer of fire-based immersive learning technology. “How do you ignore something that solves a lot of those problems?”

Then & now 

The origins of AR and VR are debated—it depends on how you define the technologies. Some argue, for example, that Mattel’s View-Master could be considered a form of VR; introduced in 1939, the binocular-like toys let you click through a series of photographs on film. If you consider only computer-based AR and VR technologies, though, they date back to the 1960s, when computer scientists Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created the world’s first AR headset.

Although the device looked more like optometry equipment than cutting-edge digital technology—and only showed users images of simple shapes—Sutherland saw the potential for the future of AR and VR, which he called displays. “The ultimate display,” Sutherland wrote in a 1965 paper, “would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming, such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”

The differences between AR and VR are subtle, and they can sometimes be confused with one another. Both display virtual objects or scenarios for users, but with VR, the virtual environment is all you see; in AR, a virtual environment is overlayed on top of the real world—in other words, you’ll still see the room you’re in, but the AR will show you other things in the space, too.

RELATED VIDEO  Learn more about the use of AR and VR to train firefighters.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that computer-based virtual reality technologies appeared, and almost immediately the technology was embraced for its potential as a professional tool. A 1985 video from NASA shows an astronaut using an early VR headset to look at a simulated rocket ship on a launch pad. But similar to Sutherland and Sproull’s AR headset from the 1960s, the display was crude, resembling more of a drawing than a realistic scenario. Things have come a very long way in the past 35 years. Not only are modern AR and VR displays ultra-realistic, but companies like FLAIM have involved users’ other senses, too.

In December, I was one of about a dozen people who attended a presentation of FLAIM’s products at NFPA’s Massachusetts headquarters. The event included a demo of the technology, which I was eager to try. The VR scenario in this case was a fire in a shipping container located on a dock. In addition to a VR headset, the equipment for the demo included a heat vest, a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with sensors to monitor my breathing rate, and a nozzle and hose reel that would jerk backwards to simulate the sensation of a pressurizing firehose. A FLAIM representative helped me fit the heat vest and strap on the SCBA unit. I donned the VR headset, clutched the hose nozzle, and prepared to do battle with the fire.

As soon as the demo began, I was no longer aware of being in a climate-controlled conference room in a suburban office building—I was on that dock beside the flaming shipping container, and I had to do something about it. I could feel the heat on my chest as I took small steps toward the container. Inside the container, bright orange flames licked the ceiling and gray smoke clouded the air. Positioning myself on one knee, I held the nozzle of the firehose tight and opened it, unleashing a torrent of water. After just over a minute of pointing, shaking, and twirling the nozzle, I’d managed to extinguish the fire. Although my heart rate was slightly elevated and a few beads of sweat had formed on my forehead, I had never been in any actual danger. But I’d been fully immersed in the experience of having to knock down the fire. “Wow,” I said, dropping the nozzle and removing the VR headset from my eyes. “I’m a little tired.”

FLAIM makes two products: the Trainer, which I had used, and the Extinguisher, which includes a VR headset and a fire extinguisher. Both products include other pieces of hardware, such as batteries, keyboards, controllers, and tablets, and provide users access to a continually expanding library of training scenarios, from simple cooking fires to complex hazards like electric vehicle fires and oil spills. “It’s not the same experience you get on the fireground, but your brain thinks it is,” said Evan Wing, FLAIM’s vice president of sales for North America.

The goal since FLAIM started offering virtual reality firefighting scenarios in 2017 has been to “make it as realistic as possible,” Wing said, and the company has discussed fire behavior with organizations like the UL Fire Safety Research Institute to make that happen. Currently, the company’s largest client is the US Air Force, which uses its Trainer for firefighter training. While a handful of other companies offer VR training for fire extinguishers and incident command, FLAIM seems to be among a small group offering a product as advanced as the Trainer. Godfredson, the company’s customer relations director who previously worked for NFPA as director of Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, thinks it won’t be long before that changes. “Immersive learning is the way of the future,” he said. “There will be many more companies in this space in the near future.”

Today, the global VR market is valued at about $16 billion, according to a report released in March 2021 by Grand View Research, a market research firm. That figure is expected to grow 18 percent annually through 2028—fueled in large part by the demand for products like the FLAIM Trainer. “The increasing usage of this technology in instructive training, such as for training mechanics, engineers, pilots, soldiers in defense, field workers, and technicians in the oil and gas and manufacturing sectors, is driving the market growth,” the report says.

Safer & environmentally friendly 

Two of the top reasons Godfredson and other experts believe immersive learning will play a big role in the future of firefighter training are the benefits the technology has in keeping firefighters safer and keeping the environment cleaner.

In addition to the firefighter deaths that occur during training each year in the US, thousands of firefighters are injured while training. In 2019, more than 8,100 firefighters sustained training injuries, according to an NFPA report on firefighter injuries. While the majority of those injuries were muscle strains or sprains—injuries that could in theory also occur in a VR setting—hundreds were injuries that would likely only occur in a live-fire setting, such as burns, smoke or gas inhalation, and heat exhaustion. These injuries, proponents of immersive learning argue, could be significantly reduced by complementing live fire training with VR and AR training. “This is a major step forward in occupational health and safety,” Godfredson said, adding that reducing firefighters’ exposure to the carcinogenic environment of live fire training can also reduce their risk of occupational cancer.

The US Fire Administration has taken a similar position, saying in a bulletin published in 2020 that “VR technology is raising the bar in firefighter training while helping save lives and conserve valuable resources. The use of VR technology allows training for incidents that cannot easily be replicated or may be very costly to recreate, not to mention eliminating the hazards involved in live training.”

One major benefit of AR and VR training, proponents of the technology say, is its ability to more easily train firefighters on responding to complex, emerging hazards, such as electric vehicle fires.  TOP: FLAIM SYSTEMS; BOTTOM: GETTY IMAGES

Conserving “valuable resources,” as the Administration put it, is the other important reason experts envision a rich future of immersive learning in the fire service—according to proponents, immersive learning offers a low-environmental-impact alternative to live fire training. It may also be one reason countries like Australia, where more aggressive climate goals have been set compared to the US, have been quicker to adopt VR training. “You can’t ignore the environmental issues in today’s world,” Godfredson said. “The fire service needs to be seen as a good community neighbor, and nothing freaks out the community more than a big column of black smoke going up as you say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re doing a live burn for a training exercise.’”

Little research has been done to quantify the environmental impact of live fire training facilities, but by nature these facilities are major water consumers and carbon emitters. For facilities that train on more specialized incidents, the environmental impact can be even greater. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Environmental Management found that 7 percent of all airports in Canada are likely contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—a group of over 4,000 man-made chemicals that don’t naturally degrade in the environment and that have been linked to some cancers. On-site firefighter training using firefighting foam, the study says, is a major cause of this contamination.

Evaluating the benefits immersive learning could have on firefighter health and safety—as well as firefighter skills—is the goal of a new Fire Protection Research Foundation project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security that will be carried out over the next two years. “VR is only going to become a more common part of firefighter training in the next several years,” said Sreenivasan Ranganathan, a project manager at the foundation. “We hope this research can give organizations like NFPA the data and information they need to assess this evolving technology and potentially incorporate guidance on immersive learning into codes and standards related to firefighter training.”

Until that guidance arrives, though, it may be hard for fire departments to fully embrace immersive learning, according to Godfredson. Although there’s nothing in any NFPA code or standard prohibiting the use of VR or AR for training, he said the simple lack of acknowledgement of the technology may give some departments the false perception that it’s not allowed. “If you look at the NFPA 1000 series and NFPA 1400 series [which cover firefighter training and professional qualifications], there are mentions of live fire training or hot fire training everywhere,” Godfredson said. “So people say, ‘Well, if NFPA doesn’t approve immersive learning, we’re not going to use it.’”

Conversely, others envision immersive learning not just as a part of NFPA codes and standards, but perhaps the topic of a standalone document. “Because there is no standardization in the definition of immersive learning or what it is expected to achieve, I think we’ll end up with an NFPA standard or guide on immersive learning to help close that gap and assist fire training academies and others in the appropriate deployment and use of VR and AR,” said Ken Willette, executive director of the North American Fire Training Directors and a previous head of the Public Fire Protection Division at NFPA. “It’s definitely one of those things the fire service is going to need to have in its inventory to professionalize the fire service.”

Moving toward acceptance 

A lack of code language on immersive learning isn’t the only challenge the technology faces in gaining more widespread acceptance in the fire service. Experts point to fire service culture and cost concerns as two other potential barriers.

“We have unique barriers to adopting new technologies and practices that other professions may not,” said Brian Brauer, associate director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute, which runs the state’s fire academy. “Our longer-term orientation makes us inherently change-resistant, and part of that resistance is aimed at keeping things how they are. We might think, ‘If we were trained using all [live fire] methods, why does this new generation need to be taught any differently?’” Brauer says it’s not an argument he necessarily agrees with—just one he has seen made. “It’s like saying we should still use horses to pull engines and fire to create steam to generate pressure. Sure, they worked. But why not critically evaluate new technologies and opportunities to see where the delivery of training and education can be improved?”

In addition to firefighter training, many experts see value in using VR and AR technologies to recruit new generations of firefighters and to teach fire safety education to children and others. Read more in "Beyond Training."  MADISON (ALABAMA) FIRE & RESCUE

Surprisingly, research presented by Norwegian scientists at the annual International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management in May showed that it was firefighting students, not seasoned firefighters, who perceived some aspects of immersive learning less favorably in a recent study. Out of a group of 19 firefighter students averaging 26 years old, only 21 percent found the representation of smoke realistic enough in a VR firefighting simulation; 71 percent of their more experienced counterparts, averaging 40 years old, found the smoke realistic enough. Overall, though, 89 percent of the students rated the experience as positive; all of the experienced firefighters found it positive.

One reason for this could be that many older firefighters have actually been exposed to cruder versions of VR training over the years. Willette recalled a firefighting tactics class he took in the 1970s where his instructor fashioned virtual scenarios using salt combined with other chemical compounds to create simulated fire behavior on a projector screen. “Virtual reality has actually been here for many years—it’s just progressed a lot,” Willette said. He also cited virtual firetruck driving training and VR for incident command training being common in North America and elsewhere in the early 2000s. Despite that track record, Willette cautions that proponents of immersive learning must avoid trying to sell the technology as a replacement for live fire training. “If we start to say that virtual reality, augmented reality, or immersive learning is going to eliminate the need for live fire training, then it’s going to fail,” he said. “The fire service, rightfully so, is dubious of anything that’s not going to give them the best advantage to being the most successful in environments with smoke and flame and heat.”

But proponents of the technology, including manufacturers like FLAIM, are quick to say that immersive learning is meant to enhance live fire training, not replace it. “Live fire training is always going to have a place in the fire service,” said Godfredson. “But we have to accept the reality that it can be dangerous, not everyone gets to do it, and if you do, it’s often the same gas prop in the same environment you’ve used for 10 years. So we see immersive learning as a way to complement live training and get the most out of firefighter training.”

Similarly, in a statement emailed to NFPA Journal in December, the US Fire Administration praised immersive learning as “highly effective at driving home tactical procedures while also providing firefighters with confidence and skill that translates into actual reality.” But, the administration added, “it must be emphasized that VR/AR are considered a supplement or a way to bolster [live fire] training, not replace it.”

An obstacle that may be more difficult to overcome is the cost of immersive learning technology—one FLAIM Trainer costs about $50,000, which for a small fire department can be a big bill to foot. Fire departments are eligible to use FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grants to help fund their investment in VR and AR systems, but it can be hard to justify purchasing cutting-edge technology when other, arguably more pressing needs remain unmet. In December, NFPA released the results of its fifth “Needs Assessment Survey of the US Fire Service”; as previous needs assessment surveys had found, the most recent study indicated that over half of all US fire departments have some personal protective clothing and SCBA that are more than 10 years old. About half of all departments have fire engines that are at least 15 years old. These figures are higher for smaller departments.

Ironically, it’s these departments that experts say would most benefit from immersive learning. “A rural state where frequent in-person training is a barrier due to travel distance could use a VR system to allow students to remotely learn the mechanics and motions of rolling and loading a hose, raising a ladder, or searching a room,” said Brauer, who sits on the Professional Qualifications Committee for NFPA, which is responsible for NFPA 1001, Firefighter Professional Qualifications, and other documents. “This wouldn’t replace the need to actually perform those tasks in a live fire situation prior to certification, but it would give the students a level of familiarity with the mechanics in a remote setting. It would add an opportunity to obtain another layer of psychomotor practice to prepare the student for in-person instruction.”

Willette sees the involvement of corporations like Tesla as one possible solution to the funding challenge. The popular American EV manufacturer has a vested interest in training firefighters on how to deal with blazes involving the powerful lithium-ion battery packs lining the undercarriages of its vehicles, Willette posited, which could provide incentive for the company to invest in immersive learning technology that would help train the fire service on responding to EV fires. FLAIM already has an immersive learning scenario available to users in which a Tesla has rear-ended another vehicle and both are burning on a highway. “I see it as a partnership between these companies and the trade and safety communities,” Willette said.

Live training can bear a large cost, too. In Gilbert, Arizona, a fire and police training facility that opened in early 2021 cost $85 million to build. But funding channels are more established for such facilities and training activities, and one location typically serves multiple departments across a state or region. At the same time, since immersive learning equipment is portable, if a state fire training agency wanted to invest in it, it could then transport it from department to department to conduct training—a cut in transportation costs for departments themselves.

Even when departments secure the funds to invest in immersive learning equipment, there may be other issues preventing them from putting it to use. For Madison [Alabama] Fire & Rescue, that issue is staffing. “We have all the VR equipment,” said Michael Sedlacek, a captain at the department. “We’re just very understaffed in our training division. I believe we’ll need to put somebody in a role to oversee this training before we can get it started.” Despite those challenges, Sedlacek’s department has managed a successful fire education program using VR for several years. (For more on that program, see “Beyond Training” on previous spread.)

Despite the staffing issue, Sedlacek remains optimistic for the future of immersive learning for firefighter training not just in Madison, but at practically any department in the country. “If I can put you in a high-risk, low-frequency event as many times as I want, why would I pass up that opportunity?” he said. “What training chief doesn’t want to get the best bang for their buck? With all of the applications and scenarios offered through virtual reality, the sky really is the limit for training.”

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. 
Top photograph: FLAIM Systems