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

Beyond Training

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


If you want to attract younger generations to any field, technology is key.

That was the conclusion of a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods, and it’s safe to say that the fire service is no different. Facing what Fire Engineering magazine described in 2020 as a “crisis” in trying to recruit new, young firefighters, experts say the burgeoning world of fire-based immersive learning technology could be a key to alleviating the problem.

Already, the use of immersive learning systems based on virtual reality (VR) to simulate firefighting is more common at high schools and colleges in the United States than it is in actual fire departments. A high school in Kentucky made headlines in December for using VR to train students participating in its fire science program. “They’re able to get training done now, in school, that would take them anywhere from six months to two years to complete after they graduated, so that’s pretty exciting,” Nathan Mulvey, fire chief for the Fern Creek Fire Department, told reporters with Fox WDRB in Louisville.

While recruitment challenges continue to plague the fire service nationwide, the country’s volunteer fire service has been hit particularly hard. Volunteer rates have dropped steadily from a high of 8.05 volunteers per 1,000 people in 1987 to a low of 5.8 in 2017, according to the "US Fire Department Profile" report published by NFPA in 2020.

“They’re finding it extremely difficult to maintain adequately trained firefighters and to recruit new firefighters,” Ken Willette, executive director of the North American Fire Training Directors, said of the US volunteer fire service. The new VR technology may provide an answer, he said. “I’ve had some feedback from people who have said that these immersive learning systems have been great recruitment tools. People may connect with that VR experience, and that may light a spark in somebody and lead them to join a local fire department as a way to support their community.”

Elsewhere, departments have also found a use for immersive learning in enhancing fire safety education for children. Madison Fire & Rescue in Alabama has been using VR headsets to teach fire safety since 2016, reaching thousands of children. “When I can tell someone to get low and they can actually see and understand why, the educational message is sent home,” said Michael Sedlacek, a captain at the department.

According to Jeff Godfredson, a former fire chief who now works as director of customer relations for FLAIM Systems, an Australian manufacturer of fire-based immersive learning technology, a major reason why the technology works so well—both for the general public and firefighters—is its ability to let you safely make mistakes. When Godfredson’s wife was using FLAIM’s fire extinguisher VR system, for instance, she put water on a grease fire, leading to an explosion of flames. The mistake was virtual, but the impact was visceral.

“She said to me, ‘I will never make that mistake again,’” Godfredson said. “And I think we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes in the virtual environment.”

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images