Chirnside Park CFA volunteers swap helmets for VR

Press & ResearchJuly 1st, 2022

This article was written by Mikayla van Loon and originally appeared in the Star Mail on 30th June, 2022. It can be viewed here

Chirnside Park CFA volunteers have swapped the helmets for virtual reality (VR) headsets in a new way of training for real life scenarios.

Chirnside Park lieutenant Kurt Pukownik undertook a long scenario of a multi-level building fire using the hose apparatus which simulates the real pressure of a firefighting hose. Pictures: MIKAYLA VAN LOON.

In their second session on Wednesday 29 June, both new recruits and more experienced members put their skills to the test in specialised firefighting simulations.

“When we’re doing the scenarios, the layering of smoke, especially inside buildings, is very similar to what we would expect in the build up of smoke during a structure fire or something to that effect,” captain Ben Cash said.

“So the advantage it has is for people who are new to doing internal firefighting, this is a really safe, calm way for them to get a bit of exposure as to what to expect in the real environment.”

The CFA Victoria equipment was specially designed by Geelong company FLAIM Systems alongside Deakin University to offer an alternative to normal training drills that would still ensure key skills like risk perception could be addressed in a safe environment.

Mr Cash said because winter is a relatively quiet time for the brigade, keeping members engaged in “a really fun, innovative but educational way” will also help in volunteer retention.

“Given volunteerism is decreasing across the board, not just the CFA but all volunteerism sectors, we have to find ways to keep volunteering, engaging, fun, and fulfilling.”

While hands-on drills outside, using the trucks and firefighting equipment still occur throughout winter, Mr Cash said by breaking into smaller groups, those external drills can be reduced in time.

“What we want to do is have smaller groups so they can do really quick drills and not be active for hours and hours and hours standing around doing nothing,” he said.

“That’s hands down the most frustrating part of training is standing around doing nothing. When the weather’s a bit nicer, it’s a lot more bearable.”

Kurt Pukownik is guided by David Markham (R) and Richard Moody (L) to ensure his physical safety when wearing the headset, while also providing real time instructions.

Using the virtual reality headset, onlookers can also see the scenario on screen to provide feedback and instruction as the participant fights the fire.

The VR headsets and equipment come with two options, an extinguisher and a hose to allow volunteers to learn with both firefighting apparatus.

The extinguisher drills range from car fires to a cockpit fire in an aeroplane, while the hose drills can be more lengthy, replicating multi-level building fires where firefighters must use their training to reduce error and ultimately put out the fire.

Hosting the VR equipment for the Maroondah group CFA branches, other CFA stations in the local area can learn and train in a similar way, with the headsets being used almost every night of the week by the various brigades.

CFA Victoria has made an effort to take the VR technology to major community events, like the Good Friday Appeal fundraiser to give children the opportunity to learn how to extinguish a fire.

Chirnside Park CFA did the same, opening up the station to Mooroolbark Girl Guides for an evening of fire training earlier this month.

“If we can give them that training early on, the amount they absorb is incredible. To give them that exposure and…that basic training could save a house,” Mr Cash said.