Tackling the challenge of wildfire training with virtual reality

Published:  08 October, 2015

REPORT: Training institutes in France, Portugal, North America and Australia have created new mitigation strategies for coordinating large-scale responses to wildfires by using virtual reality simulation training at all command levels, reports Ivo Verhoef.

Valabre – officially known as the Ecole d’Application de Sécurite Civile (ECASC) – is located in Gardanne, France, and is recognised as a world leader in training firefighters and incident commanders. Unlike similar institutes around the world, which usually operate in a regional framework, Valabre offers a uniform education and assessment of wildfirefighters for all French safety regions. The courses offered by Valabre are based on the doctrines from the French Ministry of the Interior.

Although Valabre has been using simulation for over a decade, its reputation as a world-class institute was cemented with the opening in January 2015 of CESIR, the world’s largest simulation centre for wildfire training. The realisation of CESIR came from an interregional collaboration of 14 safety regions in the South of France. The design of the simulation centre based on ECASC’s experience in simulation of wildfires with input from the training and assessment fire officers from France and other countries.

CESIR has two parallel simulation facilities that can run separate or joint simulations, a simulator for helicopters and other aircraft, ten rooms for on-scene response training, a separate room for strategic command and a classroom with 30 workstations for supporting teams. Altogether, it is able to run parallel simulations on ­64 PCs and workstations. 

Besides offering these simulation-based courses at Valabre, ECASC also has a Mobile Simulation Set which can travel to the French Fire & Rescue Services (the SDIS) or to any other user that requires simulation-based training. CESIR uses software developed by Dutch developers XVR Simulation (ESemble), which cooperated in designing the layout of the simulation facilities and the creation of virtual environments.

In order to train in the various conditions throughout France, Valabre has built a 100 x 100 km virtual ‘island’ featuring all the different terrain types that firefighters have to operate in.

Among the Valabre facilities is a dedicated Mapping Bureau that uses Unity, XVR and 3D Studio software to build content for the organisation as well as for external customers.

XVR and IGNIS
Many countries have been following the work of Valabre, including Portuguese, Croatian and German incident commanders. Under the supervision of LtCol Philip Tosello, Director of ECASC Valabre, a project was launched to integrate the XVR simulation platform with IGNIS, a simulator that calculates the responses and behaviour of smoke and fire.

This resulted in a unique combination of a state-of-the-art virtual environment using the Unity 3D engine, with highly realistic smoke and fire behaviour. One of the key features of this combination is the unparalleled ability to simulate fire and smoke behaviour in response to firefighting actions. This allows firefighters to experience a highly realistic environment when training for response from the ground (water, back burning, bulldozing) as well as from the air (water and retardants from airplanes and helicopters).

Cooperation with North America

The partnership of Valabre and XVR Simulation caught the attention of fire services in Wisconsin, in the United States, which are currently exploring opportunities to apply virtual reality training within the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact, a joint US-Canadian initiative that is striving for a common approach to wildfirefighting.

Portugal

In Portugal, Portuguese Fire Service College ENB (Escola Nacional de Bombeiros) has adopted the Valabre training methods in a brand new simulation centre for training silver and gold level incident commanders.

The ENB Simulation Centre was designed by ENB Operations Director Dr Vitor Reis and his team, based on existing simulation-centre layouts in Gelderland-Midden (Netherlands), Valabre (France) and London. The centre includes a fully equipped command vehicle (a room with same layout as the command and communications vehicle), five on-scene simulation pods, an exercise control room and a central briefing and meeting area. The centre also features a second simulation set-up with an exercise control desk supervising two additional on-scene pods. A large multi-functional area with projection facilities can be used for plenary briefing and debriefing or be expanded to include up to ten more on scene pods.  

The centre features state of the art audio-visual (AV) equipment which allows the XVR facilitators to supervise and communicate with all simulation rooms (pods) during an exercise. The AV equipment features unique ‘two way’ CCTV cameras which record the XVR screen and the student screen (using night-vision camera) at the same time. All AV inputs are recorded centrally and can be reviewed on a timeline immediately after the exercise. 

Australia

In Australia, both the Victoria Country Fire Authority and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service have been applying virtual reality training for several years. They cooperate closely with XVR Simulation. For Australia, XVR is building geo-specific content, including environments, vehicles and fire officers. This virtual content will include specific plots of land with high risk situations, for instance with forest areas near housing areas. These virtual environments were built using GIS data from the local authorities.

Peter Carter, from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, said: 'We have had to battle 40 large fires per day for months involving thousands of fire fighters across  800,000 square kms. Virtual reality training is crucial for us to meet this challenge. My vision is that our 70,000 volunteers, can access scenario based fire fighting training in their own homes.  That is the future of building and maintaining fire fighting capabilities, eventually having multi-player online gaming in virtual fire fighting environments.'

Key benefits

Commandant Meresse, leader of the Wildfire Project at Valabre, said: ‘Our extensive experience with traditional table-top simulation techniques allows us to identify the key benefits of virtual reality. Our results show virtual-reality training to be unmatched in its ability to assess fire officers in situations that come close to the stressfulness of a real life wildfire. The ultimate objective is to equip all fire officers who work in wildfirefighting with same quality of operations and the same set of operating procedures.’

The International Wildfire Simulation & Training project

The growing number of firefighting services around the world that embrace virtual reality, increases the need for common standards and operating language. To this end, Valabre and other XVR Simulation users in the area of wildfire response have joined forces in the International Wildfire Simulation & Training Project. The aim of this project is to optimise the upgrade of the XVR Simulation Platform to a state-of-the-art wildfire simulator for education, training and assessment.

Another objective is the development and implementation of the Effective Command Model in wildfire education, training and assessment. This model provides a framework to gather existing best practices and share and promote incident command assessment standards. Other fire services worldwide are invited to participate in the project.

For more information on this project, send an e-mail to Boosman@xvrsim.com.

  • Operation Florian

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