The future of firefighter training with FLAIM

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James Mullins, Chief Technical Officer at FLAIM Systems gives us a glimpse in the vitality of VR firefighter training

In the fast-paced world of emergency services, continuous training is not just a requirement but a vital necessity.

Firefighters, in particular, must repeatedly train to respond to the unpredictable nature of fires, ensuring they are always prepared for the unexpected.

IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey caught up with James Mullins, Chief Technology Officer at FLAIM Systems to find out more about how virtual reality training is shaping the sector.

As a third-generation volunteer firefighter in Australia, Mullins’s connection with the fire industry runs deep.

His educational journey took him from a small country town in Australia to the grand halls of a university, where he pursued an engineering degree.

Not one to stop at just that, he delved directly into a PhD, focusing on soft tissue modelling and simulation.

His childhood fascination with robots coupled with his academic pursuits saw him collaborate with defence sectors on robotics.

It was this blend of personal passion and academic inclination that birthed FLAIM Systems.

Mullins paints a vivid picture: “I was starting to see how virtual immersive environments can be used for training soldiers on the battlefield.

“In Australia, we were beginning to close down some of our hot fire training rounds due to PFAS/PFOA contamination from firefighting foams and some pretty harmful chemicals that were burnt over the years.”

Recognising a need and sensing an opportunity, he combined his deep-seated love for firefighting with his expertise in robotics and virtual training.

This resulted in the proof of concept for a revolutionary hot fire training system.

When Mullins showcased this system using an HTC VR headset, the reaction was phenomenal.

He reminisces: “We went viral in the firefighting nerd community… We hit about 1.6 million YouTube hits in a week as a result of that.”

From humble beginnings in a university research centre, FLAIM Systems underwent rapid growth: “Since then, we’ve gone from literally one or two people in a shed to a team of about 43, in about the same number of countries.

“We’re in about 45 countries around the world with our technology.”

But what is the guiding principle behind FLAIM’s groundbreaking training solution? Mullins is clear about its intent: “This technology is certainly not designed to replace any traditional workflow training systems that are out there.”

He explains that despite the advancements FLAIM offers, it is not a replacement but an augmentation.

In a world where hot fire training events might only come around once every few years, FLAIM’s system aims to bridge the skill fade that could occur between such training intervals.

The focus is on regular 15-30 minute micro-learning sessions that keep skills fresh and always at the ready.

Realistic firefighter training scenarios

Mullins delves into the nuances that set their system apart, describing how a virtual immersive environment is beneficial: “Virtual immersive gives the opportunity to have a conversation in a cleaner environment, allowing an instructor to view through the trainee’s eyes – we get some really powerful insights from that.”

Mullins’s description paints a vivid picture of how trainees react.

The rookies, with tunnel vision, contrast starkly with the seasoned firefighter’s broader contextual grasp.

The ability of their system to simulate scenarios such as structural collapses, some logistically unfeasible in traditional training, is an added boon.

Ensuring realism in their training scenarios is no minor feat.

Mullins shares the intricacies of their development process: “We do a lot of AV testing. I think we’re at about 50-60,000 hours worth of code time to create our simulation platforms.”

On the realism of virtual training, he says that whilst achieving 100% accuracy in simulating real fires is improbable, their use of CFD (computational fluid dynamics) packages provides as close to reality as computationally possible.

Mullins shares their partnership efforts, mentioning a collaboration with a Fire Department in California and even NASA to model and understand fire behaviour comprehensively.

The feedback loop with firefighters continuously hones their system, with Mullins noting the importance of understanding the unique experiences of firefighters to simulate them virtually: “Senior firefighters really like sharing fire experiences, and our system is a way of allowing those senior firefighters to share that experience with hundreds or 1000s of firefighters around the world.”

This is especially vital in areas with limited exposure to hot fire training environments.

Mullins provides a hands-on description of a typical training scenario, vividly illustrating the process.

After setting up, which takes around ten minutes, a trainee immerses himself in a comprehensive simulation.

The scenarios are vast, ranging from residential neighbourhoods to oil refineries or a ship at sea.

Each scenario is hyper-realistic. Mullins describes: “You’ll crack open your hose line and you’ll be pulled backward, feel the heat intensity.

“If you’re in a residential environment, you’ll open a door, and the smoke level will increase.”

The attention to detail is immense, from water droplets on a helmet reducing visibility to simulating flashovers necessitating rapid reaction.

Casualties in the environment add another layer of realism, and Mullins emphasises the biometric monitoring to measure trainee stress and reactions.

He emphasises the inbuilt benefits of safety and repeatability in VR training: “We try and create as much realism as possible in the environment, but you’re in a safe environment, not exposed to carcinogens.”

The future of firefighter training

When discussing a future in which FLAIM positions itself in this rapidly advancing landscape, Mullins’s perspective on is as practical as it is visionary, pointing to the dynamic intersection of tradition and technology.

“It is challenging to introduce a technology like this into the fire service,” Mullins says, candidly expressing the hurdles of introducing cutting-edge technology into a historically traditional profession.

Drawing a parallel with the evolving attitude towards PPE, he reflects: “It’s the same as PPE – everyone wanted dirty PPE. Now the perception is completely different: clean cab, clean gear.”

Mullins’s focus on cleaner training, especially in light of health risks to instructors, is evident.

“This is another tool to give instructors the ability to get some level of training to firefighters without exposure,” he explains.

Unveiling FLAIM’s future plans, he reveals plans to launch a multi-user team training options.

The potential applications of this are vast and could see firefighters from around the world, training together, under the tutelage of globally renowned experts.

Another key venture has been in aiding those with PTSD. As Mullins describes, the technology could be used to: “slowly either inoculate people before they experience them, or bring them back by slowly reintroducing some of these stresses to their environment”.

As for FLAIM’s direction, Mullins is clear about their position in the larger context. “We’ve been simulating fires for training in some capacity for a long time. VR is just another type of simulation.”

Mullins advocates for a blended approach to learning, underscoring the potential of their technology as an invaluable tool.

A promising aspect of FLAIM’s system is its data-centric approach. As Mullins rightly points out, there are tasks in the firefighting realm that are not often practiced, leading to skills fade.

By gathering data, FLAIM can actively track and provide tailored training recommendations: “We can trend and track and analyse and we can start to push out recommendations on what training is needed.”

On what’s next for FLAIM, Mullins introduces the concept of a digital scorecard: “Effectively, it will say ‘Here is what you’ve got right, here’s a couple of things that maybe you want to brush up on the next time we see you in the system.”

FLAIM Systems is revolutionising fire training with its immersive virtual technology, adeptly merging the traditional firefighting ethos with cutting-edge advancements.

At its core, FLAIM addresses the industry’s twin needs: realism in training and safety.

Firefighters can confront a vast array of scenarios without actual risk, ensuring readiness while eliminating exposure to real-life hazards and toxins.

Moreover, its data-centric approach provides personalised feedback, addressing skills fade and tailoring training to individual needs.

In an era where rapid technological and environmental changes present new challenges, FLAIM’s solution stands out not just as an innovation, but a necessity.

Their approach suggests that the future of fire training is not about replacing the old with the new, but enriching tried-and-true methods with technological prowess.

This exclusive article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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