On fire, and on screen

The Fire Service College is using multimedia and virtual reality to help commanders learn to make life-and-death decisions. Ray Hurst reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's a short run of motorway just outside Moreton-in-the Marsh, in rural Gloucestershire, that is probably the most accident prone in the world. In fact, so many accidents occur on this lethal stretch of the M96 that the verges are permanently strewn with burnt out vehicles.

What's more, the surrounding buildings, which include a shopping mall, factory units, blocks of flats, chemical plants and airport installations, are constantly bursting into flames. A railway nearby suffers at least one serious incident every week, while the surrounding woods and fields are littered with crashed aircraft including a Boeing 737, military jets, helicopters and the remnants of light planes.

It sounds like a scene from Diehard III and it looks like it. But, fortunately, it's not real. The M96 forms part of the world's biggest "fire-ground", located in the leafy environs of the Fire Service College in the Cotswolds. It's here that fire officers from all over Britain - and some 90 countries - are tested and trained in the rigours of firefighting.

They might be offered the unenviable opportunity of spraying a live high- tension electricity cable with water to find out just what sort of electrical charge they're likely to receive back in the process. They can dive down flaming sewers or enjoy the delights of the humidity chamber, where they're required to carry large tubs of water over obstacles to experience the changes the body undergoes under extreme heat. (You go chalky white and then rapidly through a variety of colours).

Practical training in the fire-ground and in simulated exercises is one of the most valuable parts of a fire officer's education. For the commanders who have to control operations and make 101 crucial decisions in as many seconds, simulated exercises are vital. But large-scale exercises are costly. After all, how do you set up a mock incident on the scale of the Windsor Castle fire, which used 35 fire engines (plus 21 on standby) three aerial platforms, four ambulances, two police forces, a fleet of coaches, 750 breathing apparatus sets, 200 men and 25 officers?

Even a small-scale local exercise using three engines plus crews and a derelict building can set a brigade back pounds 12,000 or more for a day's training. And, by definition, only one operational commander can be trained per session.

The solution, it seems, lies in computer simulations and the cunning use of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and multimedia to create scenarios which mirror real life with heart-stopping accuracy. The Fire Service College, working with Colt Virtual Reality, has developed Vector, the world's first command and control training package to use virtual reality on a desktop PC. With 65 countries showing interest in the system, Nigel Finlayson, the college's chief executive, says Vector is "the most significant development in operational command training for over 30 years".

Vector immerses the operational commander in a simulation which uses video, virtual reality and sound to re-create anything from a chemical plant blaze to a road accident or air disaster. But far from being a souped-up video game, the system's artificial intelligence takes desktop simulations into another realm.

The trainer can set up each simulation to test a student's ability to think on his feet by setting up a personalised scenario in advance - heavy fog, or ice and snow, the number of fire engines and how long they will take to arrive, the amount of water or foam available, the number of firefighters and so on.

A further mortifying twist is that the system itself will throw in random factors - such as a vehicle break-down or heavy traffic. To crank up the stress levels even higher, the whole thing can be personalised so that the names of the crew, their ethnic origin and sex, the type of vehicles and even the radio call signs all match those in the student's own brigade.

Vector stretches students' decision-making ability to the limit by bombarding them with a stream of crackly radio messages firing off urgent information or requests. They have to decide who and what to deal with first as the water supply runs low, a casualty is reported in the basement or a paramedic, distraught mother or aggressive news reporter appear (in video clips), all demanding attention. No two scenarios are the same, but the system will always make sure the incident develops realistically in real time and will respond to the commander's instructions as in real life.

Among a host of online analysis tools available after the exercise is a device that allows the trainer to tap into any moment during the exercise and see an X-ray view inside the building. This shows the consequences of the student's actions. If the fire has reignited or casualties remain trapped, the student will get a graphic, unwelcome reminder. Or, in fire- service speak, "their ears will burn"

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