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New Firefighter Training Simulator Stresses Safety

Chicago Tribune via Yellowbrix

June 02, 2010

ORLAND, IL – The Orland Fire Protection District next week is unveiling a state-of-the-art simulation training program that it hopes eventually will become the go-to facility for departments across the region.

The system uses computer-graphic imaging to depict real-life firefighting situations. It is only the fourth in the country based on the Blue Card command training program created by a retired fire chief whose work on safety in Phoenix has been emulated across the country.

With the new program, Orland will be able to increase the number of simulations and disaster drills while saving money, time and staff, according to district Chief Bryant Krizik. It provides “the opportunity not just to make Orland better but also every district within hundreds of miles who want to utilize these facilities,” he said.

The department began training 50 of its firefighters last week. Participants had already mastered 50 hours of online training before the two- to three-day simulation exercises, said Battalion Cmdr. Randy Reeder.

Like Air Force and NASA simulations, Orland’s fire command training experience relies on repetition, Reeder said. Repeated simulations reinforce the approach of taking standard actions to standard conditions to produce a standard outcome –– control of the fire before it “flashes over,” Reeder said.

That doesn’t mean predictability. Reeder said the simulations portray different types of structure fires and different conditions such as when a firefighter is in trouble. Orland’s simulation room also includes distractions such as smoke, sound effects and lighting that make it seem hotter than it really is, he said.

“We’re taking it to a higher level … a lot more realism with total immersion,” Reeder said.

The training program takes up about half the space of a new two-story fire department building at 10730 W. 163rd Place in Orland Park. The building was already in the department budget for general use. The cost of the simulation program is covered by a $100,000 insurance carrier grant.

During a recent simulation, Krizik was inside a real, though nonworking, SUV parked on one side of a room. Behind a curtain on the other side of the room were firefighters inside individual booths.

Krizik was looking at a huge screen showing an image of a house fire. Just as he would be in a real fire, the chief was inside the SUV about 500 feet from the “fire,” issuing split-second orders to firefighters on the ground.

The officers on the other side of the curtain were also fighting the same “fire,” but images in their respective booths showed what their views would be. For instance, one was inside the house, poking the ceiling to gauge whether the fire had spread. Another was at a neighboring house where the fire had spread.

Reeder said safety is the real purpose of the program. That’s because the number of firefighter injuries and deaths has remained the same despite a 50 percent reduction in fires in recent decades. “Guys are getting in the door and dropping through the floor,” he said.

Reeder said burning buildings collapse faster than in the past partly because of engineered-wood trusses. The lighter modern products have the same strength as the old, dense hardwood they replaced, but they buckle when exposed to intense heat, he said.

Reeder expects to have all of the Orland officers trained and the simulation open to other departments this summer. Several area fire departments have already expressed interest, including Tinley Park, Naperville and Schererville, Ind.

The post-simulation discussions give the trainers the ability “to tap into their experiences and apply them,” Reeder said. “It’s one way for us to standardize what we do.”

Ultimately, though, “our goal is everyone goes home.”