Angulo, Software, Technology

Smart Decision Making with Computer Fireground Simulators

Issue 4 and Volume 22.

By Raul A. Angulo

Not all tools firefighters use to fight fires are carried on the apparatus.

Computer fireground simulators may be the most effective tool firefighters have at their disposal to train them in making smart fireground decisions. With fewer structure fires comes less live-fire experience to draw from. Firefighters can go years on the job without a significant fire. That means they must rely on theory and simulations.

Prior to the 1990s, instructors taught size-up, strategy and tactics, and decision making by using hand-sketched diagrams and illustrations, doctored-up slides with colored markers to simulate smoke and flames, and illustrated transparencies with overhead projectors. Over the past 20 years, fire service computer programs and graphics technology have soared. Graphics don’t look like cheesy cartoon animations anymore; in fact, many come close to Hollywood-level special effects that look very real. They include smoke, fire, explosions, victims, sound effects, and more. All these categories involve movement that can be adjusted. For example, you can insert laminar (lazy) smoke or you can add turbulent smoke. The colors can be adjusted along the spectrum from white smoke to black smoke. Flames can be inserted to resemble a fire in the ignition (incipient) stage, the growth stage, or the fully developed stage. The explosions can be inserted with corresponding sound effects and victims can wave and call for help – incredible!

1 SimsUShare is an excellent tool for a tablet. Simply take a picture and drag in the desired fire elements to create a realistic fire simulation. (Photos 1-3 courtesy of Jonathan Kaye, SimUShare.)
1 SimsUShare is an excellent tool for a tablet. Simply take a picture and drag in the desired fire elements to create a realistic fire simulation. (Photos 1-3 courtesy of Jonathan Kaye, SimUShare.)

Fortunately, as the quality and realism of fireground graphics have increased, the price for the software has decreased. Previous generations of fire simulator software used to cost upward of $1,000 or more – only fire department training budgets and well-paid fire instructors could afford them. Today, computer simulation programs are within the budget of every firefighter.

There are two well-established companies that offer superior fireground training simulator programs with state-of-the-art realistic graphics at a reasonable price: SimsUShare by CommandSim© and Fire Studio 6 by Digital Combustion™. Both are used primarily in strategy and tactics classes to practice size-up, identifying problems, establishing incident priorities, deploying resources, and practicing radio communication skills. They’re also used for incident safety officer training, promotional assessment exams, preincident planning, multiagency drills, multicompany drills, and informal personal practice.

SimsUShare

With the motto “Set your world on fire,” SimsUShare evolved from the original CommandSim fire simulation program developed by Jonathan Kaye, Ph.D., in 2004. Kaye finished his undergraduate work at Cornell University and earned his doctorate in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania. He was an emergency medical technician for six years before his path intersected with fire service training. During an e-learning conference in which Kaye was talking about simulation-based training, a group of fire service instructors approached him with a need for such a program to train company and chief officers in strategy and tactics. He started working with those instructors on what was to become CommandSim. Since then, Kaye has continued to fine-tune his program with the goal of making it as easy and user-friendly as possible. SimsUShare is about as easy as it gets; it’s a rapid “sketch pad” simulation builder with simple “click and drag” functions. It works on Windows and Mac desktop computers and laptops as well as iPads, iPhones, and Android devices. I find it best suited for Android tablets and iPads.

SimsUShare is a primarily subscription-based program that allows for updates once a year to ensure you have the current software. Simply go to the App Store (iOS) or Google Play and download the app SimsUShare. You can also check system requirements and download it from the Web site www.simsushare.com.

2 Flame size can be adjusted to fit the picture for reality. Black smoke is selected to indicate a modern fuel fire with synthetic home furnishings while light gray smoke is indicating the fire is spreading to the attic. An arrow joy stick allows you to navigate through the program options.
2 Flame size can be adjusted to fit the picture for reality. Black smoke is selected to indicate a modern fuel fire with synthetic home furnishings while light gray smoke is indicating the fire is spreading to the attic. An arrow joy stick allows you to navigate through the program options.

Four versions are available:

Free Sim Viewer for Windows and Mac – a free version that allows you to view the existing scenarios that you or others make. You cannot create or edit scenarios.

Platinum Mobile app for iOS and Android phones and tablets – available from the App Store or Google Play, costs $10, and is mostly for casual users. It allows you to create, edit, and save up to three scenarios, but it plays any number of scenarios you can load onto the device.

Platinum Enterprise program for Windows, Macs, or mobile is by far the most popular version and is best suited for chiefs, instructors, company officers, and firefighters. It allows you to create, edit, and store unlimited scenarios. The subscription is about $75 a year.

Platinum Network is for Windows only, allows for up to 10 Windows computers with unlimited users, and can be installed on a Windows network. This package is more suited for fire department training divisions, allowing for unlimited viewing, creating, editing, and storing. This subscription is around $500 per year.

Here’s what SimsUShare does: Using SimsUShare on a tablet is one of the best innovations in fire service training because it allows you to take a picture of a building in your first-alarm district and set it on fire! No longer do you have to select a picture of a building in some city from a program library (though it has file pictures available). You can take a picture and use one that you’re going to be first-in on. You can take four separate photos of the structure (sides A, B, C, and D) and start building your fire scenario. This is great for company on-scene prefire drills and “What are we going to do?” strategy and tactics sessions. The four views allow firefighters to practice a 360° size-up and identify the problems. You can also take interior shots and build a scenario on what’s happening inside the building.

3 SimsUShare is simple but not limited; you can build a detailed and challenging fire simulation with a little practice. This four-story condo has limited access for fire apparatus on the C side because of the waterway
3 SimsUShare is simple but not limited; you can build a detailed and challenging fire simulation with a little practice. This four-story condo has limited access for fire apparatus on the C side because of the waterway.

The click-and-drag interface control panel is very simple to use. Simple doesn’t mean limited, because if you put the time into it you can build a very detailed realistic scenario with time-delayed explosions and time-delayed smoke and fire development. However, selecting basic smoke and fire options is sufficient for in-cab skill sessions with your crew. The first dropdown category includes all fire, all smoke, containers, explosions, hazardous materials, ladders, people, utilities, and more. Each category has more specific options to choose from.

Smoke: angry thin, autoignition, banking down, eaves, laminar, turbulent, and wide smoke.

Fire: autoignition, basic fire, bright cloud, bright row, ceiling fire, flame jet, flash burst, and wide window.

People: firefighter, boy, girl, shirtless male prone or supine, and female.

Select the problems you wish to include in your scenario and drag them into place. For Windows and the Mac OS, you can also import your own pictures of ladders, tools, apparatus, victims, and so on.

By using your finger or a stylus on the control interface, you can adjust the brightness and opacity and set the color, speed, and timing by sliding or rotating your finger on the respective icons. With practice, you can build very effective scenarios that can realistically show bidirectional and unidirectional flow paths, show smoke starting to bank down an interior hallway, and create rollover conditions that will explode into flashover. This can be very effective in teaching interior decision making.

I went on an Alaskan cruise last year and took a picture of the ship’s stern with my tablet. Later, I opened the SimsUShare app and lit it on fire. The simulation was very easy to create, and I shared it with the ship’s captain and his officer in charge of shipboard firefighting. This crew was very impressed with how easy it was to build a simulation and thought it could change the way they train in shipboard firefighting. They really got excited when I converted the control panel labels into their native Italian with the push of a button. The SimsUShare interface control panel can operate in nine languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Romanian.

4 This simulation was very easy to build. It was so effective in illustrating a challenging problem, I showed it to the captain of this ship and the officer in charge of shipboard firefighting. <em>(Photo by author.)</em>
4 This simulation was very easy to build. It was so effective in illustrating a challenging problem, I showed it to the captain of this ship and the officer in charge of shipboard firefighting. (Photo by author.)

Another interesting feature is the map view. Take a screen shot (jpeg) from programs like Google Maps or Pictometry and insert it into the simulation. This allows an aerial view of the scenario into which you can add and place crews, equipment, and apparatus on your fireground – a great feature for incident commanders to run a scenario from the back of the chief’s buggy or from a command post. Finished scenarios can be shared and transferred to different devices.

Kaye’s primary goal was to make an instructional aid (tool) that was simple enough for anyone to create localized scenarios to enhance their training and understanding of fire behavior, recognize problems, and develop an appropriate response. He says he gets a lot of satisfaction hearing from firefighters who are using SimsUShare to alleviate the fear and intimidation of making a bad decision on the fireground by giving them opportunities to build their confidence with realistic visual training so they can make the right decision when it really counts.

As for the next generation of SimsUShare software, Kaye is working on the ability to tie together individual viewers in the same scenario to enable multicompany drills. He expects to demonstrate and introduce this feature for the first time at FDIC International 2017. His goal is keeping SimsUShare extremely simple to use.

Fire Studio 6

Fire Studio 6 (FS6) by Digital Combustion is the brainchild of Rich Merritt, a 30-year fire service veteran who recently retired from the Costa Mesa (CA) Fire Department. Merritt was always fascinated with 3-D animation and is self-taught in 3-D design and animation.

In the 1990s, Merritt and his friend and business partner Doug Prochnow, also a Costa Mesa firefighter/engineer, used to film and produce some of the in-house training videos for the department. One day they came into the conference room and noticed a dry marker drawing of a structure on the white board with scribbles that were supposed to be smoke and flames. Merritt asked the training chief, “What’s this?” The chief replied, “That’s the tactical problem from the last captain’s promotional exam.” Merritt looked at it and thought, “I can do WAY better than this!”

5 Fire Studio 6 operates using the Main Control Interface panel. This control panel is much more elaborate but, once you’re familiar with it, is easy to navigate around. You can import your own photos and videos, plus there is a large library of structures and backgrounds to choose from. (Photos 5-9 courtesy of Rich Merritt, Digital Combustion.)
5 Fire Studio 6 operates using the Main Control Interface panel. This control panel is much more elaborate but, once you’re familiar with it, is easy to navigate around. You can import your own photos and videos, plus there is a large library of structures and backgrounds to choose from. (Photos 5-9 courtesy of Rich Merritt, Digital Combustion.)

In 1997, Merritt and Prochnow formed Digital Combustion and created the first version of Fire Studio. At that time, desktop and laptop computers didn’t have the power needed to run high-resolution graphics, so the interactive simulations were programed onto a large laser disc. FS1 was released in 2001. Later editions were recorded onto DVD-ROM. After 16 years of continuous development and improvement, Fire Studio 6 was introduced at FDIC International 2016.

Three versions are available, including a 14-day free trial period for the Instructor Edition. You can select Windows or Mac versions and download them directly from the Web site www.digitalcombustion.com.

FS6 Instructor Edition is the flagship full-featured program that allows you to create, play, and store incident simulations. ($895; special pricing at FDIC). Upgrades from previous FS editions are $425.

FS6 Player Edition allows you to play any simulation created on the Instructor Edition. This is a lower-cost solution to display and play simulations ($230 and $125 for previous version upgrades).

There are also two separate Sim Packs, each with 20 different single-view, professionally designed simulations to get you through the first 10 minutes of the incidents. These scenarios are excellent for size-up, initial radio report drills, and promotional exams. You can edit and resave these simulations with the Instructor Edition. Each Sim Pack is sold separately ($99).

iPad Edition currently runs on the previous FS5, but FS6 for iPad is coming soon. The iPad edition lets you play back any simulation that was created on the Instructor Edition, including the 40 Sim Pack scenarios (same price as Player Edition). Fire Studio Mobile app is a low-cost program purchased from the Apple App Store for $24.99 that creates simple simulations directly on an iPad.

CommLink 6 allows you to remotely control multiple copies of Fire Studio 6 over a network from a single computer station.

6 FS6 also has a large library of special effects including fire, smoke, and explosions. All the visual effects involve motion, which can be adjusted for color, size, shape, and speed. There is also a large sound file library to select from. In this simulation, the firefighter is shooting a straight stream through the window to knock the fire down. In the smaller preview window, the creator of the simulation is getting ready to insert a steam column to indicate knockdown.
6 FS6 also has a large library of special effects including fire, smoke, and explosions. All the visual effects involve motion, which can be adjusted for color, size, shape, and speed. There is also a large sound file library to select from. In this simulation, the firefighter is shooting a straight stream through the window to knock the fire down. In the smaller preview window, the creator of the simulation is getting ready to insert a steam column to indicate knockdown.

FS6 is a more advanced professional simulation software tool more conducive for big screen TVs, informal firehouse company training sessions, departmentwide classroom training, and conference-level presentations that use HD TV and professional projection units. The software includes substantially more options to make the simulations as realistic as possible. The Main Console Interface is an elaborate control panel with lots of buttons and slide controls to build simulations. These buttons allow you to select the structure; add smoke and fire; and control other functions like scale, size, color, rotation, direction, speed of movement, and much more. It takes a while to learn the console, but once you figure it out it’s easy to use. Be creative and play with it. The more simulations you create, the better you’ll get – but it does require practice.

Step 1: Add a background. There are approximately 150 structures or backgrounds to choose from, including an array of residential structures and apartments, high-rise buildings, commercial and industrial structures, strip malls, abandoned buildings, ships and aircraft for marine and ARFF simulations, wildland urban interface, motor vehicle accidents, interior rooms and hallways, and a 3-D floor plan. You also can import your own photos of structures in your own city. You can even import video to build an even more realistic simulation; just shoot it on a tripod so the building remains still. Otherwise, when you add smoke and flames, the building will jump around outside of the special effects. If you import video, you can have live traffic and people in the foreground. You can even film a civilian coming up to report people trapped or the building engineer coming up and giving you a status report. This makes for a very effective, stressful, and realistic simulation for a captain’s or battalion chief’s promotional exam.

Step 2: Add the special effects. FS6 has 20 different types of fires and flames, 23 different types of smoke, 12 explosions, and 18 types of hazmat smoke and vapor clouds. You can adjust the parameters of the included animations, giving you thousands of possibilities. There are also 35 sound files, which include crackling fire; blasts; explosions; hissing for leaks; gunshots for active shooter incidents; sirens and air horn; glass breaking; and the fire scene with the background noise from motors, chain saws, pumpers, people talking, and so on. There is a library of fire clip art (stills) and 13 video clip art files, which include a timer clock, various victims waving or calling out for help, firefighters working, and a firefighter down. There’s even a waving American flag to show the wind direction. Additional free content is available to registered users.

7 FS6 is an excellent tool for the tactical portion of a promotional exam or assessment center. You can include written instructions for the candidate. The arrow will change the screen to view the other three sides of the building.
7 FS6 is an excellent tool for the tactical portion of a promotional exam or assessment center. You can include written instructions for the candidate. The arrow will change the screen to view the other three sides of the building.

FS6 can be split into four separate screens to include sides A, B, C, and D in the simulation. The simulation can run on one full screen at a time or all four simultaneously while showing an accurate perspective from that side of the building by using two important special features called masking and layering – a technique that makes smoke and fire in a building unbelievably realistic.

Merritt discusses what the future holds for simulation software: “I think we want to continue pushing technology as far as we can while keeping the software easy to use. Computers have become very powerful, and we can display cutting edge graphics that can be manipulated in real time. Digital Combustion looked at moving toward 3-D environments, but you lose the ability to use your own pictures of buildings and target hazards within your own city. Using your local buildings to train on is one of the best features we offer and one of the most important aspects of simulation training.”

He continues, “FS6 is a teaching tool, a visual aid for instruction in decision making under pressure and implementing sound strategy and tactics. We’re not trying to develop video games for entertainment. High-tech bells and whistles and 3D graphics do not improve the student’s ability to learn decision-making skills. We need to stay focused on what the learning objectives are. Live burns (if your state even allows them) are difficult to pull off. With all the safety requirements that go into them, they’re not exactly realistic fires anyway. Don’t get me wrong; they serve a valuable purpose, but many fire departments don’t have the ability to practice on real-life scenarios that you can create with Fire Studio 6.”

8 FS6 has four screens available for a simulation. You can show one screen at a time or all four at once. Inserting your own photos and videos allow for a wide range of creativity. The bottom right screen shows the interior of the fire from the perspective of the firefighter looking through a face piece. This component can be used to discuss air management issues.
8 FS6 has four screens available for a simulation. You can show one screen at a time or all four at once. Inserting your own photos and videos allow for a wide range of creativity. The bottom right screen shows the interior of the fire from the perspective of the firefighter looking through a face piece. This component can be used to discuss air management issues.

Asked if he thought virtual reality (VR) firefighting was on the horizon using VR goggles and headsets, he says: “I don’t think so. Again, we’re not designing computer games. We are trying to facilitate command-level training and decision-making skills, not task-level skills. Task-level skills are best learned on the drill ground.”

“Many departments use our software to simulate the first 20 minutes of a fire. The decisions made in the first few minutes determine the success or failure that will play out on the fireground. Fire simulation software developers need to be careful that in an effort to come out with the newest and the best they’re not actually creating a game. A VR game could allow firefighters to ignore dangerous hazards and give a false sense of security by allowing them to make poor decisions without consequences – like going deeper into a fire where real-life temperatures are well above the rating of their fire gear.”

Available to the Average Firefighter

In the world of fire training and promotional exams, there is probably nothing more scary or intimidating for a firefighter of any rank than being put in the hot seat in front of colleagues, shown a fire simulation, and asked, “What are you going to do?” That’s why firefighters typically say, “Well, every fire is different.” They’re afraid of being wrong!

9 This is a hazmat background from the library that can be used to train first responders in identifying hazardous materials by using the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook
9 This is a hazmat background from the library that can be used to train first responders in identifying hazardous materials by using the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook.

SimsUShare and Fire Studio 6 are designed to be easy, user-friendly, and accessible. No one is going to invest in your training more than you. These programs empower you to become a master at your craft.

RAUL A. ANGULO is a captain (ret.) of Seattle (WA) Fire Department Ladder Co. 6 with more than 37 years of service. He is an international author and instructor and has been teaching at FDIC International since 1996. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.