The fire is raging just in front of me. An intense blaze is coming from a jet’s engine.
I’m wearing a thick jacket and a 14kg gas tank strapped to my back. It’s stifling.
Every step forward is an incredible effort due to the resistance of the water hose I’m using to try and put this fire out. My vision is blurred from the hazy smoke.
As I release more water pressure from the hose to try and get the fire under control, it pushes back with more and more force.
Nothing I do seems to make a difference. I’m increasingly worried the fire is going to rage out of control, but I can’t take a step forward because the hose, the jacket, and gas tank are weighing me down.
I feel a tap on my shoulder, and pull up the VR goggles.
“It’s a lot harder than you thought, isn’t it?” says James Mullins, former firefighter and CTO at Flaim Systems.
I have been trying out a new virtual reality program that helps firefighters to get accustomed to dangerous, high-pressure situations without them having to be physically in the field tackling real fires.
Dimension Data, a global technology integrator and managed services provider, and Flaim Systems, an immersive VR start-up owned by Deakin University, have partnered to create the training program.
According to the Productivity Commission, Australia experiences a staggering average of 54,000 bushfires each year.
The firefighters who tackle these dangerous situations not only have to remain calm in potentially life-threatening situations, but also be incredibly fit to handle the physical demands of the job.
The problem is it’s extremely difficult to train a firefighter from scratch.
Traditional training methods are inherently unsafe, hard to reproduce, expensive and environmentally harmful.
Mullins says that traditionally, training is really hard to achieve at a brigade level as we have to use a fair element of imagination. ‘Imagine there is a fire over there: attack it as you would…’,” he says.
“Traditional training can be really expensive too. Our [physical] training grounds are being closed down due to PFOS [perfluorooctane sulfonate] and PFOA [perfluorooctanoic acid] contamination (a resultant of years of fire fighting foam use).”
The Flaim system aims to remove those constraints and allow users to train more safely and in great detail, anywhere the VR rig can be set up.
Instructors can monitor the trainee’s vital signs, physiological responses and performance during training.
As the captured data and training session is recorded and stored in a cloud environment or integrated into a learning management system, results can be benchmarked, and instructors can review and track performances over time.
The Flaim system includes an HTC Vive VR headset, a weighted jacket with with heat generation components, a breathing mask and a patented haptic feedback system.
The jacket is made of a conductive nano-fibre called “hitoe”, which tracks the wearer’s ECG readings and transmits them in real-time on the external screen for the trainer. It can heat up to 120C for short periods.
There are two variants of hose that can be used. One provides around 30kg resitance, and a heavy duty version that can provide around 75kg resistance.
“Obviously nothing can compare to being in a real fire,” Mullins says. But the VR training means first responders can be better prepared.