NFPA Podcast: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Firefighter Training

NewsJuly 14th, 2023

The following is a transcript of a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) podcast with:

(Host) NFPA Journal Senior Editor, Jesse Roman

(Guest) Ken Willette, Executive Director of the North American Fire Training Directors (NAFTD)

Podcast Summary:

Incredible advancements are being made around using virtual reality to bolster firefighter training. Some fire departments are even using VR to educate the public about fire safety. Today on the podcast, we talk to Ken Willette, Executive Director of the North American Fire Training Directors, about what’s available on the market now, where the technology is headed, and how fire departments can best implement this technology into their training programs.

You can listen to the podcast on the NFPA website here. FLAIM has highlighted some key takeaways in red.


NFPA Journal Senior Editor, Jesse Roman (JR): Hey everybody. Guess what? I had a baby. I guess more accurately, my wife had a baby, so this is the second to last new NFPA podcast that you’ll hear for a few months while I go on paternity leave. We’re also hitting pause on the code corner segments for a little while.

But the great news is during my hiatus, we are running an amazing award-winning podcast series called The Survivors, which was created by my former colleagues, Fred Durso and Kyle McNaught. It follows a family in Wyoming after they experience the unthinkable tragedy of losing two  children in a house fire. The series looks at the lifelong toll fire is taken on the family, as well as the amazing people responsible for burn treatment and recovery in America. It weaves together perspectives from the fire service and top safety advocates, and it showcases how home fire sprinklers can significantly reduce fire deaths and injuries at home. It’s a really amazing series, so definitely check it out and I’ll see you again in October.

Okay, onto today’s show.

Hey everybody. Welcome to the NFPA podcast. I’m NFPA Journal Senior Editor, Jesse Roman. I’m recording this from the NFPA Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, which happened June 19th through 22nd (2023). I had a little studio set up here and I was able to have a bunch of really interesting conversations with a bunch of really, really smart people about all sorts of topics related to fire and life safety, emerging technologies, energy storage systems, virtual reality and a tonne more. I’m going to be releasing these conversations as podcasts throughout the coming year. The first of those conversations is actually debuting right now. I talked to Ken Willette, who is an awesome guy, my former colleague and my friend, and now the Executive Director of the North American Fire Training Directors (NAFTD).

I brought Ken on to talk about the incredible advancements that are now being made around virtual reality and firefighter training. We talk about what’s available on the market now, where the technology is going, current research, and how fire departments are supposed to figure out how best to implement this technology into their programs for training new recruits, as well as educating veteran firefighters on how to respond to emerging technologies like EVs and energy storage.

That’s all coming up. Stay with us.

My guest today is Ken Willette. Ken is a 35-year veteran of the fire service, and he now serves as the Executive Director of the North American Fire Training Directors. He spent more than three decades in emergency services working as a Department of Defense Aircraft Rescue firefighter, a volunteer firefighter, a municipal firefighter and shift commander before rising to the rank of Fire Chief in two Massachusetts towns. He then spent eight years leading teams that support first responder standards development and fire service solutions at NFPA. And he also is a former President of the Fire Chief’s Association of Massachusetts.

Ken Willette, welcome to the NFPA podcast. It’s really great to have you here. We’re going to talk about virtual reality and how the fire service is using that both for training and for educating the public. It’s a really interesting emerging topic. But before we get into that, I want to talk a little bit more about yourself and introduce people who you are.

You’re the Executive Director of the North American Fire Training Directors. I’m sure a lot of our fire service audience will be familiar with that organization, but for those who aren’t, tell us a little bit about the North American Fire Training directors and what you do.

 Ken Willette, Executive Director of the North American Fire Training Directors (KW): Sure, and Jesse, it’s great to be back and be doing another podcast with you. I appreciate the opportunity.

The North American Fire Training Directors is a membership organization, and our members are the state and provincial level directors of fire training. So, using some NFPA terminology, they are authorities having jurisdictions. They are AHJs in their state or province, and they oversee the delivery of training, the selection of curriculum, and in many cases, they administer the certification processes for that area.

We have 50 state fire training directors in the United States, and we currently have about 47 of them enrolled as members. And there’s the, I think there’s 14 Canadian provinces and we have six Canadian provinces as members. And while we may not be a large membership organization, collectively, we are responsible for training over a million firefighters annually, through our collective systems.

So, we’re a very diverse group, but our impact is very, very big. And I serve as the first ever Executive Director, and one of my roles is to help people understand who we are and what our outreach and impact is. So, I appreciate this opportunity.

JR: And you yourself, you know, have been involved in firefighter training for a really long time, both for, I believe the state of Massachusetts, right, and then also at NFPA. So, we are going to talk about virtual reality and how it can be used as a tool for training firefighters as well as to educate citizens on fire safety. And to some people, I’m sure that kind of sounds futuristic still, but it’s actually happening already. So, can you tell us a little bit and talk a bit about to what extent virtual reality is being used currently in the fire service and, could you give us a few examples of how it’s being used?

KW: Sure. So virtual reality is where you have some simulation and, typically a goggle or a headset to immerse the learner in what is being developed. And this technology has evolved from. And if you’re of my age you may remember Atari as a very early video game, and now with the complexities of the video games we have now, how involved they are, the graphics, the speed in bringing you more into the experience.

Well, virtual reality has gone the same route. What was a nascent technology maybe 10 years ago has really evolved and grown. And part of that might be due to some of the strides made in the gaming industry – and it’s now being applied to the fire service for putting the learner in a situation that might be too dangerous to have repeated exposures to, or it might be an experience that is very infrequent in, it occurs infrequently, but nonetheless is going to have a high impact if things aren’t done correctly. And also to put the learner in a situation that they’re building muscle memory, they’re developing ‘sets and reps’ is the term we use so that when they face this situation in the real world, they have something in their frame of reference to respond to and to enact an action plan – which is what the fire service does, they assess a situation. They evaluate the risks. They look at the resources available. They have their tactical objectives, and they develop an incident action plan. But if it’s a situation that a young firefighter or a young fire officer, or even a senior fire officer has never experienced before, it can be difficult for them to apply their previous learning, their field experience to this event.

So virtual reality allows for that to do it, and we’re seeing widespread integration of it for, in particular, there is a product for teaching fire attack, so it immerses the learner with the goggles in the headset and they have a library of some 50 plus firefighting scenarios. And this system has evolved to, not only is there the goggles in the headset, but the firefighter can wear a protective vest that will produce heat and they’ll have a backpack on their back, similar to a self-contained breathing apparatus that houses the technology to integrate everything, and they will have a hose line that’s connected to a stationary reel, but through the technologies can create back-pressure. As the student opens the nozzle to flow more water into the fire that they’re seeing in their headset, they will get more back pressure and it’s enough that it can cause the student to have to take a step backwards; so it’s pretty integrated, and this type of  technology integration is where virtual reality is evolving to. Not just the single headset, but adding more into the experience so that the more realistic, the more involved the learner is in the experience, the more learning that’s going to take place.

And of course, I think it also helps engage the learner in that presence if they feel more as if they were in an actual firefighting situation. But that’s one example.

Other examples are, driving simulators, which have been around for, quite a few years, and this is just a large screen and a mockup of the cab of a piece of emergency apparatus with a steering wheel and the brake and the gas pedal, the shifting control, the emergency lights, the radio and others. And on the windshield, the student is shown a scenario that they operate the simulator through and if they crash, they’re crashing in the simulator and not the. $500,000, brand new firetruck. So there’s advantages to that.

We now have pump operated simulations that are being used, which have a replica of the fire pump panel, and it allows the student to learn how to control the flow of water, the speed of the pump, and get the desired pressures, without putting the fire truck itself at risk.

Again, if there’s any damage to the equipment that’s a sizeable cost and you’re taking a very important piece of apparatus out of service.

And then the last one I want to touch on is for incident command training. So, this is where the VR can be used to put the learner in front of a large scale incident, and they have to go through the steps as if they were the incident commander. Many firefighters will go from being a firefighter to being a fire officer with very little actual command experience. They get it mainly in the field. So, this is good because it gives them the opportunity to develop that muscle memory, those sets and reps, in a safe environment, in a learning environment, and then be able to be promoted or to go out into the street and display this skill in real-time, under real conditions with hopefully positive outcomes.

JR: All of that sounds really interesting and really amazing. I imagine too, like, this isn’t just, speaking of, you know, the, the fire officers and the commanders, this isn’t necessarily just for new recruits, I could see this being applied to emerging hazards. You know, something like ES you could develop scenarios where even experienced firefighters can practice responding to some emerging thing that, you know, is just coming out.

KW: Absolutely. And we’re recording at the NFPA Conference and Expo out in Vegas and in the exhibit hall. There is a manufacturer of electric vehicles that has brought their virtual reality learning system that they bring out into the field to train firefighters how to respond to emergencies with their electric vehicles, their batteries, and their energy storage systems.

So what you just described is in fact happening. And obviously these electric vehicles are very expensive. You can’t burn them to give hands-on experience. You can’t go and destroy a battery pack because there’s some risk in there, in, how do you manage it safely. But in the virtual reality world, you can do all of those things to train the firefighter to be better prepared when they encounter that out in the field.

JR: This isn’t something that the fire service just kind of came up with on its own. This already has a use case. It’s been used in, in other industries, for many years, right?

KW: This has already been used in aviation, medical and military defence. Yeah, they’re using it quite a bit. I mean, the top gun fighter pilots, they spend I think like maybe a thousand hours in a simulator before they ever get behind the controls of an actual aircraft, and then they go fly it. In medicine today, doctors are rehearsing, and medical students are learning very involved procedures through augmented reality, virtual reality, and then they go in practice on a person. So, these are parallel safety critical professions that they can help convince the fire service that this is a good tool and we can learn from their experiences.

And then lastly, the Department of Defense, the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, they’re all heavily invested in this and they’re using it to train thousands of soldiers simultaneously on large type military events that are spread out across the world. Which is pretty powerful when you think about it, that for the type of activities that they’re engaged in, to be able to train people across the world at the same time, in the same experience, to the same protocols… that’s very powerful.

JR: So you, I assume, have tried quite a few of these things. Mm-hmm. And I know you’ve also, you know, been on a lot of fire ground and opened up a lot of hand lines and done all that stuff too. How realistic actually are some of these, you know, programs?

KW: That’s a really pertinent question because there is a discussion across the fire service right now about – what is the legitimate role of virtual reality? And I’m going to introduce the term immersive learning. Immersive learning is a broader concept that includes virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and simulation. But they’re all learning mediums where the learner is actually immersed by – using a very simple definition we heard in one of our focus groups I’ll talk about in a little bit – it’s learning that involves two or more senses, as opposed to just reading or just listening. And there is a big discussion going on – what’s the legitimate role of virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive learning when it comes to critical fireground tasks and live firefighting is one of those – fighting a real fire.

So in the firefighter training world, and I’ll use a brand new firefighter who’s going through recruit or firefighter one level training. This firefighter has no experience, has never been inside a structure fire – is just learning the basics. They will go through, typically it’s 12 to 13 weeks of training and a lot of that time will be dedicated towards understanding the chemistry of fire and building construction, personal protective equipment, and there will be a segment that’s dedicated to being able to attack a live fire as a member of a team and to do it safely. In building up to that, the students will be exposed to products of fire are broken down into small learning segments. They’ll watch a fire develop and to see the smoke. Then they’ll get up closer to it to feel the heat. Then they’ll have a training prop where they will actually create a flashover and a smoke explosion. So the student will watch what develops, how does it react, and they’ll be safe, but they’re doing that. And then finally, they will actually go into a, a building that is designed for live fire training and they will be exposed to a live fire and working with a crew of firefighters, they will be advancing the hose line, working in fire ground conditions and extinguishing the fire with the tools that they were given and the training that they’ve been taught.

And you want firefighters who can handle that environment. They have to be able to operate because that’s where the public expects the firefighter to be of service. There’s some limitations to that. We now understand that anytime there’s a live fire, there’s carcinogens and other by-products that are not good to expose people to.

And certainly, the student who’s being learned will be exposed to it, but also the fire instructors and the support staff that allow the fire to happen and maintain the safety barriers, they’re going to be exposed multiple times. So the question has come, how do we reduce those exposures? Because we know that fire and smoke – bad. Carcinogens – bad. Contamination – bad. How do we do that? But how do we create a firefighter who is confident that when they go to work on the first day or they respond to their first fire, they’re confident that they can go because they faced a real fire training experience. So, we’re working on that balance.

JR: Yeah, it’s a good point. You know, these tools can be useful, but they don’t take the place completely of a live fire training. So, you mentioned focus groups. I know you just recently completed a project of the Fire Protection Research Foundation in which you got a bunch of people together and had a symposium or workshop or something, and talked about some of these issues. Can you just tell us a little bit about that? I know there’s a report that just came out that kind of summarizes some of that stuff, but just talk about that a little bit.

KW: Sure. Working with the Fire Protection Research Foundation, we were able to secure an a Federal Assistance Firefighter Grant and the title was The Firefighter Immersive Learning Environment – and how can that be utilized to improve firefighter health and safety. And to get to that decision point, we had to first understand immersive learning in the environment. So as part of this project, we did a literature review, and we did some background research. We conducted five focus groups – three were of firefighting attendees from across the country in three different locations. One focus group was with the technology integrators and the developers of the immersive learning, and then the fifth was with the curriculum developers and the certification bodies who are very involved in fire service training.

We did hold a day and a half summit, in February, where we had 60 attendees come in and through presentations and then a breakout group discussion, we gathered all this material and it’s put together on a report that’s available at the Fire Protection Research Foundation webpage (we’ll put a link in the podcast description). And we’re presenting on that today at the NFPA C and E. But this information is going to help provide a roadmap to the fire service to become a smart consumer of immersive learning technologies.

One of the things we discovered is because virtual reality and augmented reality have been around for a while and it’s now evolving to the fire service, the people who want the fire service to have this product are becoming the biggest driver of getting it in front of the fire service. And with all due respect for these nice people, they tend to be commercial entities, so they have a vested interest in selling the product. The fire service, because this is relatively new for us, may not have the depth of knowledge to be an informed consumer to evaluate not only the technology, but the learning outcomes. Because that’s the one thing with virtual reality is it, it’s nice, it’s engaging, but if it doesn’t achieve definite learning outcomes, then it really is of no value to the fire service – because the fire service is driven by certification achievement of firefighter one and two and fire officer one and two certification. So that’s the real driver here, is understanding not only the technology, but how do you measure the educational outcomes? How do you know this is the right investment? What should be your expectation of a return on investment? One of the things that of course has come up is the more complex, the virtual reality and augmented reality, immersive learning tool is – the more you need support staff.

I can remember being a young firefighter and we were taught always carry a rag in your pocket and a wrench in your hand, because this was the day when fire apparatus, it was not uncommon for us to raise a hood and to do a minor repair, to check the fluid levels to wipe up and whatnot. You can’t do that with today’s apparatus.

Certainly, you do your maintenance checks, but firefighters by and large are not engaging with the fire apparatus systems. Those go, and for the right reasons, go to persons who are trained and certified to, maintain those systems. Well, it’s going to be the same way with immersive learning. It’s not going to be as simple as, I’ve got a laptop, I need to reboot it.

There’s going to be a lot more to it, updates, connecting to the server, connecting to the technology, maintaining it. So, we’ll have to see how that all shakes out and how the fire service is able to sustain that. But that’s one of the areas we discovered through our focus groups, where there was some concern is, how will the fire service be able to support this? And if they have to contract with somebody, what will that cost and how does that impact the budget for overall training?

JR: You know, if there are fire service trainers or leaders, departments looking to find out more solid information, guidance on how to start a VR program, things to watch out for, that kind of stuff, have you come across any good resources or where should they go?

Sure. So today we’ll be talking about two state training academies who have made the investment in this technology already. One is the Illinois Fire Service Institute and the other is the Connecticut State Fire Academy. I’ll talk about the Connecticut State Fire Academy because their approach, PJ Norwood, the Director, his approach was very holistic and he took time, he involved his staff, and he really challenged his staff to say, what can we do to make recruit learning a better experience for our students? And he stopped to think about how do students learn today? And students don’t learn as well, or, their tendency to learn is not in the book and it’s not in PowerPoint. They’re so used to going online and doing podcasts and watching videos. He said, how can we integrate that? So he studied it with some resources and came up with a plan of how he reduced the amount of time students were actually spending in the classroom watching PowerPoint and gave them off hours assignment – it’s a residential academy, so they’re in the dormitories in the evening, he has a captured audience – but gave them after hours reading where they would go and find the information online themselves and watch it and do interactive lectures that are available online and then come in the next day.

And what he discovered is he was able to reduce the amount of time in the classroom by a factor of one third and give more time in the drill yard with hands-on training and evolutions. And he’s making the investment in the virtual reality training tools to be able to get the students through as much basic sets and reps as possible before they get out into the drill yard and do the actual training. I think that’s a great example of how it can be done in a very organized manner.

I think at the local department, typically, my experience has been there’ll be somebody within the department that’s an advocate for it, and it’s the responsibility of that person to kind of understand the tool, the need, build the business case, sell it to the leadership of the department, the leadership of the department gets the funding and then put it in service and monitor it. But right now, we don’t have a real roadmap for them to follow. That’s one of the gaps that we’re trying to solve through the project.

JR: Just switching gears a little bit now, you, you mentioned the presentation that you’re giving a little later at the NFPA conference. It’s going to focus on how fire departments are using this technology for training, but also, as part of their community risk reduction plans to train the public on fire safety, which the really novel approach that I’ve not come across before. It sounds really interesting. Can you take us through what that looks like and give us an example.

KW: For training the public to be better prepared for fire, one of the really strong uses of VR is in training the public for fire extinguishers – how to use fire extinguishers.

In the old days, you would take a pan and put a flammable liquid in it, or you would take a waste basket with paper, and you would light it, and then you would give the public a fire extinguisher and have them go spray water or the dry chemical and extinguish it. And it was a great learning, but you can’t do that in every location. You can’t do that to every person. With the VR, you’re able to put the person in a very realistic situation with a simulated fire extinguisher, but again, it’s connected to the goggles. So, they see the fire, they operate the extinguisher as they would a real one, and they see the impact of it on the fire in the goggles.

Or there’s another type of trainer that they have a screen that shows a very realistic fire. And as they operate the extinguisher, the impact of the fire is reflected. So, in either instance, the students immersed, they’re learning, they’re safe, but it’s the ability to repeat that time and time and time again and get as many people trained as possible. So I think that’s a real value for the community risk reduction.

And if I can, Jesse, one of the other things is the use of this technology for recruitment of new firefighters. Right now, the fire service, like many other occupations, is challenged to find sufficient numbers of interested people to want to take on the occupation.

It’s caused the fire service to rethink how do we approach recruitment. It used to be people came to us looking for jobs. Now we have to go to them to recruit them. And one of the tools is using the virtual reality trainers to allow them to experience what a firefighter does in a safe environment and connect that want of the individual to do something of service, to have a mission, to see the impact that they can have on fire.

And it speaks well. A lot of people walk away from that experience and say, yeah, I’m going to go to the next step. I’m going to put in the application, I can do this. And it removes that question they had in their mind, ‘I can’t be a firefighter’, either ‘I don’t think I’m strong enough, I don’t think I’m able to withstand it’.

But through that experience, they get their first taste of it, and they say, ‘You know what? I think I can do this’. So, it’s opened up the recruitment potential to a greater audience and it’s being used very successfully.

JR: It sounds like there’s so many use cases for this, and I know you’re plugged into, you know, the training community across North America. I’m curious how, how widely spread is this technology right now being used? Is it still like in the very, very beginning stages, is it further along? Like, how would you quantify that?

KW: You know, there’s that technology implementation curve that kind of looks like a rollercoaster. You go up, up, up, up, up. You reach the top and then you come down, down, down, down, down. We’re still in the climbing phase. We’re still very much in the climbing phase. There’s only a handful of products out there that integrate VR and augmented reality into that learning medium. So, we need to get more people engaged in building the products that the fire service needs.

They have to listen to the fire service. The fire service has to be able to have a dialogue with them, and that reminds me at the summit we had at Illinois Fire Service Institute, one of the best outcomes was those two audiences were sitting together in breakout groups talking about the fire service – here’s our needs, and the technology integrators saying, well, here’s a way I think I can approach that. And then asking more questions to further refine what is needed and what is possible. And the other thing too is it’s helping build that forward looking vision so that maybe we don’t have the exact tool today, but maybe in three years somebody will see a new technology and say, I remember hearing from the fire service they needed X. If I tweak this, if I integrate this, if I modify it, I think I can meet that need. That’s really going to help develop the number of products that are out there for the fire service to consider when they’re making the investment in immersive learning.

JR: So, if you look in your crystal ball, where do you see all this going? Is it going to be a significant portion of firefighter training, do you think, in the near future, or is it still going to be more of a novelty thing?

KW: I definitely see it losing the novelty status. Definitely. Timeline that’s probably five to seven years out. And I think that’s just because we need some, success with those who have adopted it. And we need to share that success. And then we need to have the developers, the technology people, continue to listen to the fire service and refine their tools to really meet the fire service needs. And then lastly, to ensure that it’s educationally sound – that you can measure outcomes, that you can prove learning has taken place, and that it will answer the question: Is this person qualified to be a firefighter by using virtual reality in the same way that your performance can be measured using live fire training, for example, that they actually go into the room and suppress the fire.

So there’s still some work to be done on that. And I do know that there are several departments that have applied for Assistance to Fire Act grants to fund these types of immersive learning tools. I think that’s going to help promote it as well. And I do believe the work that, we’re doing with the Fire Protection Research Foundation has gotten a lot of attention. A lot of people are asking questions, they want to be involved in the project, so I think that’s going to help move it along as well.

JR: Yeah, well it makes a lot of sense on a lot of different levels and it’ll be interesting to see in the next few years the types of stuff that come out. There’s already some, I’ve seen some videos online, there’s already some really cool stuff, but I just, I can imagine as the technology evolves and the market matures, it’s just going to get more and more interesting. So thanks so much Ken Willette for coming on the podcast. It was really interesting talking to you and learning about this stuff. Thank you.

KW: All right. Thank you, Jesse.

JR: And that does it for today’s podcast. Thanks to Ken Willette for that awesome conversation. We don’t have a new code corner for you this week. I just didn’t have time to put that together, being at the conference. But we’ll have another one next week. Just a reminder, I’m actually going to be out for a little bit. I’m going to be on paternity leave. I just had, well, I didn’t technically have, my wife just had our first child, so I’m going to be out for a little bit. We have one more new episode for you, and then starting after that is going to be this awesome, awesome series that my colleagues did a few years ago called The Survivors, which looks at what it means to lose someone in a fire and all of the implications that has. It’s a really incredible program that won awards. So, we’re going to be re-running that during my absence for about five episodes. So definitely check that out. But we will be back in two weeks with a brand new episode and, I’m sure it’ll be a good one. So, until then, stay safe.