First responders in Boulder, Colorado, are using virtual reality headsets for immersive training experiences.
In the past several years, agencies across the country have used virtual reality screens to simulate scenarios they would respond to, but not many have utilized headset technology in their training until now.
“How can we do better to protect not only the public but ourselves from the dangers that we’re dealing with? This is really where it’s at,” Longmont Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief John Weaver said.
The immersive training center — a joint venture by the U.S. Department of Commerce First Responder Network (FirstNet) Authority and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – combines virtual reality headsets with real sets and 3D obstacles for a one-of-a-kind, hands-on experience.
Virtual active shooter scenarios, extreme weather and house fires are all simulated at the center.
“So, if they were having a fire nozzle to spray and put out a fire or if they’re interacting with a piece of metal equipment or a triage activity, they could still interact with that real thing and get that real feel,” Scott Ledgerwood of the NIST explained.
Assistant Fire Chief Micah Holmes recently tried the technology.
“It’s a little bit overwhelming,” said Holmes.
After putting on the headset, Holmes saw a smoke-filled room. He also had to navigate blindly through the real room where he was trying to save the victim by using his hands.
Holmes believes the training will be effective for first responders who learn better with hands-on experiences.
“That becomes a very big, I think, a game changer for us. Having the controllers … is not the same as being able to use your hands like you actually would,” he said.
Ledgerwood hopes the training will enhance first responders’ situational awareness.
“Training is really important to really plan for, you know, these high-risk, high-stress scenarios that maybe occur once a year, maybe every five years,” he said.
The training also has cost benefits as it’s typically cheaper than traditional in-the-field training.
Holmes said that the training allows for first responders to experience a wider variety of situations in a safe environment.
“There are endless possibilities and kind of a low cost, quicker way to get those experiences to the entire line staff without one, putting them in danger, or putting them in ideal atmospheres and increase the amount of training in a more rapid fashion,” Holmes explained.
In addition to VR headsets, Augmented Reality (AR) headsets are also being tested at the Boulder center.
AR headsets are generally smaller than VR headsets and transmit live data about an incident directly in front of a first responders’ eyes.
The center is also studying how the technology can benefit first responders’ training programs by analyzing a collection of data points. Information gathered during the training exercises may be used in future field training exercises.
“This, this technology absolutely will save lives. And that’s the public, for sure. But that’s also first responders. That’s a big deal,” Weaver said.