Philadelphia's state-of-the art simulator is helping apparatus drivers discover their weaknesses before they hit the streets.
On an auspiciously bright and sunny day in May 2010, the Philadelphia Fire Department hosted an open house to introduce its new driver-training simulation lab at its safety office located in northeast Philadelphia. This event culminated a four-year quest to acquire this state-of-the-art, virtual-reality training system as a primary component of the department’s continuous and comprehensive efforts to enhance regional firefighter driver safety and professionalism.
During the open house, then–U.S. Fire Administrator Kelvin Cochran lauded the commitment to safe driving that PFD leadership demonstrated through its persistent and determined effort to acquire the powerful simulator-based training system. Cochran told the audience that the simulator-training experience will result in a safer, more aware and more cautious driver who will retain the noble desire to arrive promptly on scene to “make a difference,” but who also will balance that honorable intention against the practical reality that arriving safely is necessary in order to render that assistance.
“This driver-simulation training will temper that spirit of competition down to a level of safety and precaution, where we will still get there fast enough to make a difference, but the firefighters will be blessed enough to get back to the fire station and go back to their families at the end of their shift,” Cochran said. “For the predictable contributors to line-of-duty deaths and debilitating injuries associated with emergency response, this driver-simulation training will have a major impact on reducing those numbers throughout the region served by the Philadelphia Fire Department, by giving our firefighters an opportunity — in the safe and controlled environment of the driving-simulation lab — to help improve driving tactics and provide realistic training based upon real-life experiences.”
During the open house, each of the guests was exposed to the full PFD driving-simulation-training experience. Each “trainee” drove in realistic scenarios, which were specifically scripted to replicate the conditions, circumstances and sequence of events of two very serious PFD crashes. Upon completion of the driving scenarios, each trainee’s recorded driving experience was replayed, analyzed and critiqued. Safe-driving practices and principles employed by the trainee during the scenario were highlighted, complimented and reinforced. Any violations of these principles, any judgment errors, and any potentially unsafe actions or behaviors were noted, and appropriate corrective recommendations were provided.
The critical need to recognize and respond to sensory cues during the scenario, as in the real driving world, was discussed at length. A primary objective of these post-exercise debriefings is to develop and nurture the trainee’s ability to identify and exploit accident-avoidance opportunities. During the sequence of events leading to virtually every vehicle crash, there are times when driver anticipation, situational awareness, cue recognition and appropriate responsive action will provide opportunities for the driver to avoid a potential crash. These points in time are accident-avoidance opportunities, and they often go unrecognized. Ultimately, although a given accident may not have been judged to be our fault, more often than not our driver did fail to recognize and exploit the avoidance opportunities.
At the conclusion of each driving-exercise critique, photographs of the actual accidents upon which the scenarios were based were viewed by the participants. These dramatic images provided powerful visual reinforcement of the critical driving lessons that were learned. Most important, the entire training experience clearly demonstrated the tremendous teaching power of these sophisticated simulators as a major component of the PFD’s effort to reduce the frequency and the severity of accidents involving its vehicles and drivers, something that was noted during the open house by Rep. Allyson Schwartz (R-Pa.).
“It is critically important that our elected federal officials and those who control federal grant funds witness first-hand the power, efficacy, impact and value of driver-training simulators,” Schwartz said. “That was certainly accomplished through your efforts today.”
Indeed, compelling and indisputable evidence is mounting to support Schwartz’s perspective regarding the positive impact of simulator-based driver training. From Los Angeles to New York City, a growing number of fire departments employ simulation as a key component of their driver-training programs, and virtually all have reported significant declines in accident rates and severity. For example, the FDNY reported a 12% overall decline in EMS accidents and a 38% decline in intersection accidents in just the initial year of its simulator-based training program. These declines are particularly noteworthy given that they occurred in what is arguably one of the most-difficult driving environments in the world, and because intersection accidents generally are the most severe.
Such striking results certainly are not limited to New York City, nor are they limited to the fire service. A diverse array of simulator end-users, including the U.S. Army, mass-transit agencies, long- and short-haul trucking operators and law-enforcement agencies, all have reported similarly impressive declines attributable to simulator-based training.
In fact, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (Cal Post) recently completed a comprehensive statistical study of law-enforcement driver training programs in that state. The report concluded that officers who completed a blended driver-training program that included simulation were more than 10% less likely to be involved in an accident. It is therefore no surprise thatstrongly recommends that driver-operator training should include “an appropriate blend of theory, simulation and hands-on practice in all driver-training programs.”
Given the very recent delivery and installation of Philadelphia’s sophisticated simulation system, the related training curriculum remains a work-in-progress for the PFD’s safety-office staff. However, although the curriculum still is being developed, it clearly has been decided that the PFD’s driver-training program will most definitely embrace the multi-faceted, hybrid and blended approach recommended by FEMA and validated by the Cal Post study.
A key component to the successful implementation of this blended approach will be the optimum simulator configuration that was selected by the safety office after much research and deliberation. The PFD system includes the following components:
- Three truck-style, driving-training simulators (DTS);
- One chief/EMS vehicle–style DTS;
- One advanced instructor operator station; and
- One basic instructor driving station.
The truck-style DTS best replicates the feel of large vehicles feel, as well as the behavior of engines, aerials, quints and similar vehicles. The three truck simulators have been upgraded to include a tiller option, which provides a behind-the-vehicle view. This is particularly beneficial when training to back up the tiller apparatus, which is especially important given that the PFD has 35 tiller apparatus in its operating fleet. Thes elected system configuration provides an extremely flexible and effective combination of training positions, allowing as many as five students and/or instructors to drive at the same time.
Given the breadth, scope and scale of the PFD’s simulator-based driver-training program, such flexibility is essential to its successful implementation and to the realization of the department’s short- and long-term training goals. The program will be comprehensive and is designed to provide maximum penetration and complete member coverage — all present and future uniformed personnel have been identified as the target audience for the program, including all suppression, EMS, hazmat, special operations, fire marshals, ARFF and staff personnel. This goal of blanket coverage is readily achievable, simply because the simulators will be integrated into every stage of PFD driver training, certification and qualification.
First, simulator training will be incorporated into the initial driver training that is provided to all PFD cadets, including both suppression firefighters and EMS/paramedics. This training will constitute a major component of an expanded emergency vehicle operators course (EVOC), the provisioning of which is mandated by the state.
Second, simulator sessions will be incorporated into all continuing education/training of PFD driver-operators. One major objective of this continuing education phase will be full compliance with the following FEMA recommendation (Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative): “Require all emergency vehicle drivers to participate in refresher training on an annual basis and recertify according to department requirements no less than every three years. A second major objective will be to achieve voluntary compliance with the relevant NFPA standards:
- NFPA 1002, Fire Department Vehicle Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications;
- NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; and
- NFPA 1451, Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program.
“Achieving these objectives through simulation training is consistent with the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation’s Life-Safety Initiative No. 8: “Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.”
Third, driver-training simulator sessions also will be central to planned, individual-focused, remedial training efforts. Members involved in multiple accidents, or an individual accident that meets specific criteria or thresholds, will be required to undergo mandatory non-punitive focused training. Instructors will exploit the simulators’ scripting capacity, or “scenario toolbox,” to replicate the circumstances of the driver’s actual accident. Instructor and trainee will review the actions taken in the scenario, identify and discuss any mistakes made or avoidance opportunities missed, and delineate appropriate responses. Lessons learned will be reinforced as instructors will create similar scenarios incorporating many of the same elements as the original accident.
Fourth, simulator training will comprise the core of planned train-the-trainer initiatives. The objective of this phase of the program will be the establishment of a cadre of “safe-driving mentors” in the field. These officers will function as facilitators for related station training activities, and as an in-place conduit for the timely delivery of topical driving-safety information.
Finally, as recommended by FEMA, the simulators will be used in all phases of training to improve and reinforce driver decision-making processes. Simulators can be used to address critical driver judgment fundamentals including:
- Intersection clearing,
- Conflict resolution/management (obtaining the right-of-way),
- Apparatus placement,
- Large vehicle dynamics,
- Braking efficiency,
- Total stopping distances,
- Driving to conditions,
- Effects of weather (coefficient of friction), and
- Critical speed in curves.
In addition, the driving environment can be enriched by the instructor’s introduction of a wide variety of variables such as increased traffic density and elevated driver aggressiveness.
Through its long and rich history, the Philadelphia Fire Department has manifested an exemplary commitment to the safe, professional and courteous operation of its emergency vehicles. The PFD has an established record and a well-deserved reputation for the prompt and safe delivery of a comprehensive array of emergency services. Despite that demonstrated record of excellence, however, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and Deputy Commissioner of Operations Ernest Hargett have vowed that the department can and will do even more to ensure firefighter and public safety.
On a most fundamental level, there is an increased risk to a community when the ability of its first responders to deliver emergency services promptly and safely is in any way compromised. When PFD vehicles are involved in accidents, they obviously are unable to provide emergency services at the destination of original dispatch. The risk to involved PFD personnel, as well as to other parties to the accident, is equally evident. Furthermore, additional community risk accrues as replacement units not only must be directed to the initial emergency, but also additional protective assets must be deployed to the accident scene.
The leadership of the PFD clearly has decided that more can and must be done to minimize those risks. The department firmly is convinced that pervasive, persistent, instructor-led, hands-on, interactive, continuing, simulator-based driver training will better prepare and equip its drivers to make those critical decisions necessary to the safe operation of emergency vehicles. Such training will foster a culture of safe, aware, professional first-responder drivers, which can only serve to make the operating environment — the urban area’s busy streets and highways — safer for emergency responders and private citizens alike.
Bttn. Chief Henry J. Costo is a 36-year veteran with the Philadelphia Fire Department. He has served as the Department's Safety Officer for six years. Costo also serves as chairman of the Safety Committee for the International Association of Firefighters Local 22. He has a degree in fire science and graduated suma cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business.