Fire Wire: Simulator helps Eielson firefighters train to arrive safely to a scene

Published: Jan. 8, 2021 at 4:08 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Firefighters have a hard and often dangerous job, and training helps ensure they are able to be safe and effective while doing that work. In the winter however, this can be hard because of the cold temperatures and slick roads. To combat those challenges and improve training in the winter, the Eielson Fire Department purchased a simulator to help firefighters practice driving a truck and pumping water.

“Can’t go outside in the wintertime and train. Trucks can’t go outside because you freeze water, you freeze the piping on the trucks, they are not made for those conditions. So we went out and we looked to find ways to overcome those arctic conditions here,” said Marc Hughes, the Chief of Operations at the Eielson Fire Department.

Their solution was to purchase a simulator to help train firefighters. The simulator has four large television screens that wrap around two seats to replicate the interior of a fire truck. It isn’t just screens and a seat though. The seats use air suspension like real seats in a truck, and the steering wheel provides feedback when turned too hard or when the simulator hits something. The brakes are attached to an air compressor to replicate the air brakes in the real truck. The simulator’s dashboard resembles that of a real fire truck as well with parking brakes, gauges, and even lights and sirens that the simulator driver can turn on and off.

The simulator goes beyond just help with driving. It also has a pump panel for the driver to operate when they get to the simulated fire.

“This pump simulator is an actual representation of an actual pump panel on a fire truck. Here we can run them safely through operations, showing them mistakes, and change conditions so that they can adapt and overcome those,” Hughes said.

However, the simulator doesn’t take the place of actual time behind the wheel. Hughes said, “We are not going to teach an individual in a room, on a computer, in front of TV screens, how to drive a truck.”

Instead, he said the simulator allows them to teach awareness and safety. One of the things the program can do is change driving conditions such as weather, traffic and visibility. While a firefighter is using the simulator, there is someone else that is controlling it and can throw in unexpected challenges such as a tire blowout or a brake failure. The simulator also has built in scenarios that test the ability of the firefighter to pay attention and react.

Alexander Stewart is a driver at the department and said that the simulator, “Just really gets me thinking about what to expect on the road, whether that is other people, their driving, the conditions... is it raining, is it snowing, is there obstacles on the road? It gets me thinking in a safety mindset, thinking of what I am going to expect out there... what I am going to encounter when I am driving the apparatus in real life?”

Stewart went on to say that he has seen the training on the simulator make him a better driver of the actual trucks.

As for the pump simulator, Hughes said that it not only allows them to practice with the system in the winter, but it also saves water and money.

While the system is mainly for the firefighters at Eielson Air Force Base, they have invited other area departments to come and use the tool when they want. Hughes said he is also planning to expand the simulator by adding a gyro that will allow the seat to move with the truck, and adding virtual reality to practice incident command work.

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