Is Immersive Learning in Your Future?

By Ken Willette, Executive Director, North American Fire Training Directors

The past decade has seen periodic changes in fire service training curriculum, driven by new knowledge and skills based on research and field experience. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has been part of that change by bringing the voice of the volunteer fire service forward on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committees, curriculum development projects, and serving on numerous research advisory panels.

Key partners of the North American volunteer and on-call fire service are the state and provincial directors of fire training and education. These directors are members of the North American Fire Training Directors (NAFTD) and are recognized as the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ’s) to oversee fire training in their geopolitical area. They are responsible for delivering training to all members of the fire service, and as a training delivery system, these AHJ’s collectively had over 1.2 million fire service students participate in their training in 2020.

If you have been in the fire service for any length of time, you have also experienced technology providing new ways to conduct learning – from salt tables and overhead projectors, then carousel slide decks and audio tapes, followed by video tapes, and in the past decades, computers and LCD projectors. Through each technology evolution, NAFTD members have adapted to ensure excellent training and learning took place, regardless of how it was delivered.

Today we have seen a quantum leap in delivering training by the introduction of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) systems as tools for fire service training. Things have evolved from the apparatus driver simulator, a fixed prop where screens surround the student driver, to wearable goggles and vests that drop the firefighter into a virtual world that closely replicates the reality of structural fire attack. In this virtual world, students can learn basic skills to prepare them for NFPA 1403 compliant live fire training as well as actual structural fire attack. Because this training environment is virtual, and the student is exposed to minimal risk, there is also the potential to chip away at the 8,000 plus injuries that occur during training each year.

The military, aviation, and medical disciplines use AR and VR for training with great success. Now comes the question, “Is it right for the fire service?”

To answer this, NAFTD in collaboration with the Fire Protection Research Foundation have secured AFG funding to study the application of immersive learning on firefighter skills, health, and safety during training. We have branded this the FILE study, for Firefighter Immersive Learning Environment. The NVFC is represented on the project’s technical panel by Charlie Kludt from South Dakota and Reid Vaughn from Alabama.

A project goal is to collect insights from the fire service on the benefits and challenges of immersive learning. To date, NAFTD has hosted three fire service focus groups, (Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Utah) along with a content developer and technology integrator focus group. This February, a FILE Summit will take place at the Illinois Fire Service Institute that will share the findings from the focus groups as well as aligned research performed by the University of Illinois.

A key deliverable of this project is to provide a roadmap on the use of immersive learning for the fire service and create a web knowledge base for the fire service to use as it considers utilizing immersive learning for its training activities.

If you want to learn more about immersive learning and the FILE study, check out this video: Using Virtual Reality to Train Firefighters. A more in depth discussion can be found in the NFPA Journal article, Full Immersion.

Is immersive learning in your future? Maybe, but rest assured the collaboration between the NVFC and NAFTD on the FILE project will ensure your needs are addressed and voice heard.

Ken Willette, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, serves as executive director of the North American Fire Training Directors, providing support to the member organizations that train more than 1.1 million volunteer and career emergency responders in the United States and Canada. In his duties, he routinely works with state, provincial, and federal government leaders, as well as private sector representatives.