A new virtual reality technology promises to change the way firefighters safely train and prepare for particularly dangerous situations in the line of duty.
Dubbed the FLAIM trainer, the Australian innovation is just being released on the market after being developed over the past two years at Deakin University in Victoria.
The $55,000 system, which has caught the interest of Fire and Rescue NSW, involves trainees donning a jacket with heated pads and wrestling a force feedback fire hose in all kinds of tricky situations.
Aside from donning a VR headset, a firefighter mimics real life conditions by pulling on their gear and grabbing a hose, but the only flame to be seen is on a screen in something resembling a video game.
A series of training scenarios that firefighters must navigate include a petrol station on fire, a kitchen blaze and an aircraft engine in flames.
It is close enough to reality to be of use, according to James Mullins of FLAIM Systems, who developed the product.
“We’re modelling things that are very, very hard to model – fire, smoke, water. We’re starting to push into training where we can really develop new skill sets,” Mr Mullins said.
Mr Mullins, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Victoria for more than two decades, said the FLAIM trainer was conceived after training grounds were closed due to chemical contamination.
“We’ve had interest internationally. It’s been crazy since we’ve launched this product,” he said.
“In the last couple of days we’ve had hundreds of people in the system, we’ve had some very, very good feedback.”
But Tim Climo, a firefighter trainer, was optimistic firefighters could use this system to maintain their skills, but said nothing could replace real-life training.
“The conditions on the screen weren’t simulating the real conditions,” Mr Climo said.
Drones used to spot and douse fires
Virtual reality is not the only new technology firefighters are beginning to use with drones increasingly used to respond more quickly and cheaply to outbreaks of fire.
Drone training company UAVAIR has developed a drone to be sent into areas too confined or dangerous for humans, equipped with thermal cameras to help crews find survivors.
“For getting instant situational awareness, drones have proved to be very popular in giving that intelligence to people on the ground far quicker than seeing it with the naked eye,” said the company’s Angus Stewart.
Firefighters are also using technology to wrangle big data to be more efficient in their jobs.
Dutch firefighter Bart van Leeuwen, who runs his own company focused on bringing data to search and rescue team, said data about communities’ ethnic makeup can help firefighters better understand risk.
“We’ve seen in Amsterdam that the ethnic background is related to the type of fires people have,” he said.
Mr van Leeuwen said he can imagine a day when firefighters put in a contact lens that projects helpful information directly onto their retina.
“I have one fire chief in the US who said to me, ‘Have you seen Star Wars where Princess Leia has a hologram of the Death Star, I want that for every building’,” he said.
“I said, ‘I can see that, we’re not there yet. But if that’s what you want and you’ve got the information to construct wire frames, why not?'”