Driving Simulators Provide Realistic Response Scenarios

(1) The Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department driving simulator is a 28-foot-long trailer containing the cab provided by Spartan Motors, Inc., a classroom area, and an instructor module.
(1) The Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department driving simulator is a 28-foot-long trailer containing the cab provided by Spartan Motors, Inc., a classroom area, and an instructor module. (Photos courtesy of Simulation Technology.)
(2) Via a five-screen array of 46-inch, ultra-thin bezel LCD monitors, the full interior vehicle cab renderings include mirrors, A- and B-pillars, and sight lines.
(2) Via a five-screen array of 46-inch, ultra-thin bezel LCD monitors, the full interior vehicle cab renderings include mirrors, A- and B-pillars, and sight lines.
(3) An instructor module allows trainers to monitor what a student is doing and offer real-time feedback.
(3) An instructor module allows trainers to monitor what a student is doing and offer real-time feedback.

Driver training isn’t like training to operate inside a burning building. Conditions can be replicated to help firefighters develop the skills they’ll need to extinguish a fire, perform search and rescue tasks, or ventilate a structure. Training to drive and operate an apparatus isn’t so easy. Trainees can practice at a pump panel and flow water or spot an aerial device and raise the ladder. However, responding to an emergency scene with lights and sirens at emergency speed is not something training officers can replicate.

The Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department recently took delivery of a simulation system that combines a custom cab built by Spartan Motors, Inc. and simulation scenarios provided by Simulation Technology (Sim Tech), based in Elburn, Illinois, to help guide students through realistic response scenarios.

Familiar Surroundings

The simulation experience begins in an actual apparatus cab. “We give them the components that replicate a MetroStar cab module that the driver sits in,” says Bill Foster, vice president and a founder of Spartan Motors, Inc. “In other words, where the engine tunnel is, where the switches are-everything is identical to the cab so that the seating position is a match to what they would own.”

Darren Basch, vice president, sales, marketing, and business development for Sim Tech, adds, “The physical cabs of our fire apparatus driving simulation systems are the actual cockpits off the Spartan assembly line. Our driving sims are configured with the real OEM Spartan MetroStar instrument panel with full working gauges, siren/flasher rocker switches, Smart Wheel capability, a three-series brake retarder, pump capability, full options for the floor pedals, and a Bostrom seat.”

In the case of the Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department, Training Chief Kevin Sehlmeyer says the units in its fleet that are seven years or older are all Spartan. “So, we’ve grown up driving Spartans,” he says. “Even when we brought in someone else’s chassis, when we wrote our specs, things are in the same places.”

Simulation Components

Once inside the “vehicle,” trainees will look out and see a true, greater-than-230-degree view created using a five-screen array of 46-inch, ultra-thin bezel LCD monitors. The full interior vehicle cab renderings include mirrors, A- and B-pillars, and sight lines throughout the geo-world that are geometrically correct from the driver’s viewpoint. “This is crucial for positive training of clearing intersections and defining accurate spatial relationships between the interior and the exterior of the cab so the students can acclimate and train effectively,” says Basch.

He adds that Sim Tech works directly with the Spartan apparatus and vehicle manufacturing engineering groups to incorporate the actual vehicle dynamics and CAN bus technology to drive the simulation’s component systems and sensors as an alternative to conventional multiwire looms. “In other words,” says Basch, “Sim Tech’s driving simulator systems are operated just like the real vehicles and apparatus [firefighters] drive every day.”

The Grand Rapids Unit

Sehlmeyer says the department took delivery of the simulator in late Spring 2011. The unit is housed in a 28-foot trailer that features the Spartan cab at one end and a classroom area to the rear. There is also an instructor module that trainers can use to monitor what the student is doing and offer real-time feedback. The simulations are run on a single PC. “You can’t practice emergency driving in the streets of Grand Rapids,” he says. “I believe this gives us the opportunity to put people in a somewhat stressful situation but also allows me to stop the process and back it up and show them what they did.”

The department purchased the larger trailer so it can put in a second simulator eventually.

The portability of the simulator will be key for the department, as Sehlmeyer planned to roll out a departmentwide training program in December. “We’re going to take everybody in the department and run them through the driving simulator so that we can put them in actual emergency response situations,” he says. “And we believe that that is going to round out our whole emergency response training program.” The ability to transport the simulator to separate fire companies, rather than bringing those companies to a fixed location, will keep the companies in service and in or near their first-due response area.

Adding Realism

Sehlmeyer asserts that using a simulator gives Grand Rapids the opportunity to actually put people into driving scenarios, which it has never been able to do before. “Typical training for emergency vehicles involves talking about all the laws and different things operators would do in intersections,” he says. “The simulator forces the student to make decisions that would be as close as you can come to the real thing.”

Foster says new apparatus operators need more nonstreet training before they get in the driver’s seat to actually drive. “This vehicle is a heavy truck, and it does not stop like a Pinto,” he says. “They’ve got to understand that a fire truck is a heavy truck and the stopping distances change, the turning radiuses change, and the responsibility is huge.”

In the state of Michigan, once a firefighter completes six hours of classroom time, the driver will get a half hour to an hour of real driving, but it’s through cones. “Even there, we don’t see what people are going to do when we have the siren running, the adrenaline flowing, and traffic moving around them,” says Sehlmeyer. “The question is, how will people do when they get behind the wheel? They pass the written test and the State of Michigan basically says the chief can sign off on everyone.”

What the simulator does is add that dose of realism missing from the state-approved driver training program. “When you get in, you turn on the batteries and master ignition just like you would the rig at the station,” says Sehlmeyer. “You turn on your emergency lighting and you pull out of the station or wherever the scenario starts.”

Sim Tech has designed specific scenarios for specific departments but will push them out to everyone. Grand Rapids is going to build three urban scenarios. “Our response area is an urban city area going out into a bedroom community,” he says. “They will design scenarios built around those things. Sim Tech also has scenarios where you have to respond five miles out into farm country-complete with deer running out, tractors, and trucks going 60 miles per hour through intersections. If you run a stop sign, you will get hit.”

“You have to be a good defensive driver,” adds Foster. “What happens when a person is driving an emergency vehicle is that people on the street are looking to figure out where that noise is coming from-if they hear it. And they will create abnormal issues in traffic.”

Basch states that Simulation Technology’s driving simulation systems allow trainers to develop effective training in decision making and vehicle handling skills to help reduce accidents to and from incidents. It also helps reduce training costs, which all told will include fuel, tires, and wear and tear of the fleet on the track and road. “Fewer accidents means a more dependable fire department that the community will support and feel good about regarding security, safety, and reliability,” says Basch.

Real Results

John Sztykiel, president and CEO of Spartan Motors, Inc., says, “Responding to any emergency scene, there is a lot of risk involved as the department is going as fast as it can in traffic. A saying that rings true most of the time is that practice creates improvement.” Sehlmeyer agrees and has proof.

Sim Tech asked Sehlmeyer to attend a trade show where it was displaying its simulator and be the driving training instructor for attendees. Basically, he spoke to the attendees while they drove the simulator around without pressure, explaining to them what they should do in different situations, leading up to the point that they would drive the simulator in a competition. He noticed that after letting them drive around, then running a practice emergency scenario, the operators would say, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that.” Then, when they’d drive in the actual scenario, the time spent practicing and discussing made them drive differently. “To me, training is when you see learning has occurred,” Sehlmeyer asserts. “I truly see learning occurring in a driving simulator.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

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