Building Simulation Programs

Issue 11 and Volume 5.

With the number of actual fires we’re responding to on the decline, it’s extremely challenging for firefighters and officers to gain real-world experience. Although live-fire training is one option, it can be complex and difficult to conduct and, of course, there are inherent risks.

To combat these challenges, some fire departments, such as the Phoenix Fire Department and the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, have constructed full-fledged command training centers. But you don’t need to build a fancy command training center to create high-quality training scenarios. All you need are some dedicated personnel who are willing to learn and a good software package. That’s right, software.

Targeted Learning
Computer-based simulations can fill the gap between classroom learning and real-world experience. They’re the closest thing to real-life experience as one can get, allowing officers the ability to train and evaluate personnel to ensure that they’re ready to take on the challenges of the modern fireground.

A key benefit of command simulations is the depth of what can be measured. Rather than a single firefighter at a command console, effective simulation is about running through scenarios as a crew so that each member is learning what they need to about their specific role. Specifically,

  • Firefighters learn decision-making skills as they demonstrate their ability to prioritize specific tasks.  
  • Company officers learn discipline and coordination among themselves as well as how to effectively communicate the tactical aspects of their decisions while maintaining crew continuity and accountability. 
  • Incident commanders (ICs) learn to verbally manage and communicate their strategic objectives.

Key Simulation Elements
With this in mind, following are some elements to consider when building simulations for your department.

Objectives: Well-designed objectives are perhaps the most important element of any simulation. You need to establish what you want to get out of each session. Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel? If so, you can focus your efforts on those areas in need of improvement. If not, consider starting with very basic goals and objectives.
Some examples of skills to test in a command simulation include, but are not limited to:

  • Strategic and tactical decision-making;
  • Hoseline placement;
  • Apparatus positioning;
  • Strategic/tactical objectives;
  • Radio reports on conditions (first on scene, CAN reports, follow-up reports, etc.);
  • Size-up/critical fireground factors (COAL WAS WEALTH, WALLACE WAS HOT, FPODP, etc.);
  • Establishment of command;
  • Command and strategic mode determination;
  • Incident priorities;
  • Assigning of companies/personnel;
  • Incident benchmarks and notifications; and
  • Knowledge of department standard operating procedures (SOPs).

SOP Alignment: Keep in mind that for command training to be successful, it must be built on the SOPs used in the department’s everyday operations. This creates the “playbook” on which training is based, and also creates consistency in training.

Evaluation: Before conducting a simulation exercise with actual students, have some mock students or fellow instructors run through it to see if you’re meeting your goals and objectives. Something may sound great on paper or in your mind, but once you get started, it may not play out exactly as you expected.

Time: Simulations should last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes depending on the number of skills you want to evaluate. Anything longer than 30 minutes in one sitting will probably be too taxing for all parties involved.

Immediate-Need Challenges: Properly run simulations can provide as much or as little stress for the student as you want. To assist with evaluating how an individual and/or crew would manage a stressful situation, I suggest adding what I call “immediate-need challenges” to the simulation. Examples of immediate-need challenges include:

  • Firefighter down/missing/trapped;
  • Exposure problems (embers causing fires to exposure buildings);
  • Civilians in need of rescue, shelter-in-place or just calming;
  • In-your-face people, such as an irate citizen, the city manager, a city council person, a law enforcement officer, a victim’s family member, a member of the media wanting an interview, etc.

All of these challenges are meant not only to add some real-life stress, but also to actually evaluate how the individual and their respective crews would manage such scenarios.

Roles: Simulations allow students to practice different roles to see how that changes their responsibilities on the fireground. Anyone can try their hand at being the first-arriving company officer or chief officer. You can determine if you want someone to be an engine, ladder or rescue company officer.

Additionally, are you going to have one person use the simulator at a time or do you want multiple candidates operating simultaneously, each playing a different role? Look for simulation packages that offer you the ability to simultaneously evaluate multiple roles, including firefighters, engineers, company officers and even chief officers. In my opinion, simulations that only allow one person (typically the first-arriving officer as the IC) to participate are missing the mark.

Paperwork: Simulations can be very effective for getting new officers comfortable with documentation and evaluating the use of department documentation. Possibilities include tactical worksheets, incident command forms or white board systems used on command vehicles.

Follow-up Questions: After the simulation is finished, consider asking the students some follow-up questions:

  • What (if anything) would you do differently?
  • Did you have enough resources on scene?
  • Why did you do this or that (a chance for the individual to defend or justify what they did or did not do)?
  • Describe to us your objectives, your strategy, your tactics, your ICS structure, etc.

Simulation Termination: A properly designed simulation would not be complete without a proper debriefing session that allows all participants the opportunity to state what they did, what they would do differently, what they felt went well, etc. It should also allow for feedback from the instructors as to what they felt went well and what could have been done differently.

Final Thoughts
Simulations have been proven by the airline industry to successfully prepare pilots for the challenges they may face in the sky. It only seems appropriate, then, that similar programs would offer considerable benefits to the fire service. When effective objectives are created and applied in simulations, fire service personnel can offer standardized and consistent training, while improving decision-making skills and providing measurable outcomes. In sum, simulations that can evaluate various ranks of personnel at the appropriate levels (strategic, tactical or task) are valuable training tools that can be used over and over again. And they make up for the real-world experience that many of today’s firefighters are missing.
The author has reported no conflicts of interest with the sponsor of this supplement.