The alarm sounds: a house fire. The volunteers spring into action, arrive at the house, see smooke coming from the roof, strategize and take action. Complications ensue. They work it out. Fire extinguished. No injuries. Job done. Lessons learned.
Another fire successfully fought by members of the North Arlington Volunteer Fire Department and they never had to leave the firehouse. And, in fact, they did all while sitting down.
Did they just hallucinate what just happened? No, they were fully engaged in fighting a fire in real time, with the only difference being that the “fire” was superimposed on a computer screen, along with the fire personnel and rigs.
It’s all provided by Flame- Sim, an Illinois-based company that offers firefighters what the company characterizes as virtual “unscripted, high pressure, full-scale training scenarios,” that, according to Volunteer Fire Chief Mark Zidiak, forces them to make on-the-spot decisions that will have consequences.
Zidiak said the department secured the system with the aid of a $104,000 federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant allowing for the purchase of hardware and software.
“All three of our firehouses are linked to the system,” the chief said.
So fire officers can organize informal training exercises with the rank and file or any of the volunteers can opt to come in, grab a remote and use the system on their own time as a way of re-orienting themselves to a variety of potential firefighting situations.
For the department’s younger members, in particular, the technique doesn’t take a lot of time getting used to, Zidiak noted, since the process mimics playing an electronic video game – except, of course, that these simulations can all be played out in starkly real life terms.
“We plan to use it eventually as part of our officer training program to supplement our existing requirements,” Zidiak said.
The software program has 100 different fire scenarios built into the system, along with a “grading page” that rates how a participant reacts to each situation in which he or she is asked to make a decision about what step should be taken next at a fire scene – whether, for example, to grab a ladder of a certain length, or search for victims, etc.
But the system is designed so that any given user, such as the North Arlington Fire Dept., can input additional scenarios that may more closely reflect borough-like environments, Zidiak said.
Volunteer Firefighter Joseph Labarbera, who is coming up on his four-year anniversary with the department, has found the system “very user friendly. I can use it as a tool to be able to develop strategic decision-making skills.” Initially, Labarbera said, as the virtual system puts the “player” enroute to a fire, “it’s prompting me to think what I’m going to do when I arrive at the scene and what level of preparedness I can expect. It’s important to remember that no one scenario fits all.”
The system can also simulate a dense, smoky fire and how it would look through the eye of a firefighter using thermal imagery at the fire scene and test the operator’s ability to maneuver his/her way through that environment.
Meanwhile, Zidiak said, the borough department has tapped another federal funding source – $285,000 in ATF (Assistance to Firefighters) grant program funding – matched by $15,000 in local funds – to secure new air packs, along with individual breathing masks. The equipment figures to last at least 15 years, he said.
About a year ago, the chief said, the department upgraded its communications capability by acquiring and installing “repeaters,” which transmit a radio signal from one location to another, and thereby eliminated certain “dead spots” – coverage gaps – that prevented volunteers at a Schuyler Ave. fire scene, for example, with talking to a company up on Ridge Road.
Recently, the department was fortunate to pick up a surplus piece of military motor pool – a five-ton, 27-foot-long Army truck with a 20,000-pound payload – which, Zidiak said, could be used in emergencies – conditions like Superstorm Sandy – to rescue people stranded in flooded areas. The truck could probably roll through water 36-inches deep, he said. W.J. Devine & Son Trucking in Kearny hauled the vehicle on a flatbed, from the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to the borough, the chief said.
And, for internal use, Zidiak added, “we’re getting computers to do reports and other records we used to do on paper.”