The U.S. Marine Corps has some of the most advanced weapons systems and training in the world, yet they make extensive use of low-tech training tools like sand table exercises and tactical-decision games. Although the U.S. Department of Defense has a nearly $18 billion annual training budget, the Marines choose to teach decision-making and tactics to entry-level officers through low-tech methods. There may be a lesson here for wildland fire agencies with far smaller training budgets wishing to teach similar skills.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent developing computer-based wildland fire simulations that promise to add exciting new dimensions to wildland fire training. However, there are disadvantages associated with this type of training tool. First, it requires several computers with high-end video cards installed. Second, it requires someone with information technology skills to run it. Third, it requires some level of effort to integrate this technology into existing training courses. Fourth, software development is very expensive.
Sand table exercises, on the other hand, require only a box of sand with some toy figures of people and fire engines, material that looks like vegetation and smoke (cotton), and chalk to mark fire perimeters and roads. Sand tables can be used in remote locations. The only limitation to sand table exercises is the trainer's imagination; an infinite number of scenarios can be created to stimulate learning. Individuals can be placed in situations where they have to make decisions and communicate them to subordinates. Investigation reports for tragedy fires have often pointed to indecisiveness and poor communication as causal factors in accidents.
Low-tech training versus high-tech training? How do you decide? How much money is available to a training department? Does training have to be absolutely “realistic,” or does it just have to produce the desired learning outcome? How much technology is needed to provoke firefighters into making decisions in a training environment where no firefighters are at risk? Do people from today's video-game generation expect high-tech computer-based training? The selection of training tools should be a process similar to that of selecting tools with which to fight a fire: Choose the right tool for the job.
Wildland firefighters can learn many things from simulation-based training, including fire behavior, tactics, communications and decision-making. The wildland fire simulations currently in use, however, all share the same basic objective: to bring wildland firefighters, working individually or as a team, to one or more decision points in the context of a realistic scenario. Elements of risk, uncertainty and time pressure are introduced to get the learners to practice functioning under realistic conditions. As the firefighter or team makes decisions in the simulation, the decisions must be clearly communicated to peers, subordinates or superiors. Afterward, the scenario, the decisions and the reasoning behind the decisions can be analyzed for the benefit of all participants. For obvious reasons, trainees in such a decision-making exercise are often referred to as being “in the hot seat.”
The four types of wildland fire simulations can be broadly categorized as follows: computer-based, video-based, scripted role-playing and sand-based. On the high-tech end of the spectrum are the computer and video simulations. On the low-tech end are the scripted role-playing and sand-based simulations. All four types of simulations require the active involvement of humans to run the simulations and make adjustments as trainees interact with simulation scenarios, make decisions and alter the course of the simulation.
Officially known as the 3-D Virtual Wildland Fire Simulator, the Wildland Fire software was developed by the U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with a private vendor, Dynamic Animation Systems Inc. This vendor also is the developer of a structural firefighting 3-D simulator for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.
The NFA uses their system in some of their command/staff training; they have built a “simulation lab” on their campus, installing computer hardware and software that allows them to network four classrooms together with a control room from which simulations can be directed. The result is a high-fidelity, three-dimensional virtual environment through which students can “move” and view fires from different perspectives. In other words, students in Classroom A might be looking at the front of a building, while students in Classroom B might be seeing the back of the same building.
Development of the 3-D Virtual Wildland Fire Simulator began after the NFA's system was nearly complete. The Wildland Fire software provides a physically realistic fire propagation model based on fuel types, various environmental conditions and topography. Although much of the software from the previously developed structural fire simulation system could be used in the wildland fire system, there were also many new features to be developed.
For example, different types of vegetation and terrain, trainees' ability to request wildland fire suppression resources, and the ability for simulators to change wind direction and speed were all required. Trainers strongly desired the ability to use actual terrain in wildland fire simulations, and they needed the flexibility to be able to add structures to more accurately depict some of our wildland-urban interface situations. A scenario editor feature was added to the program, giving instructors the ability to create a nearly unlimited number of training scenarios in addition to using the scenarios built into the program.
Students don't sit in front of a computer and enter keyboard commands to make this system react. Typically, students are in a room with a large monitor that shows the fire spreading in “real time.” Students can order and place resources on the fire; at the instructor's console, the trainer can decide when resources arrive and define the fireline being constructed. Eventually, students will see the results of their resource ordering, placement decisions and instructions as the fire continues to burn or is impeded by the constructed fireline. The simulator is effective for instruction at or below the 300-level of National Wildland Coordinating Group courses.
Certain specifications for computer hardware to run the system must be met, but none of these requirements are prohibitive. The system runs on a personal computer platform; a high-end workstation is not required. A Pentium 4 PC with a 1.6GB processor, 20GB hard drive, and 512MB of RAM running Windows 2000 Professional is more than adequate. The system does require a good video card such as Nvidia's GeForce 4600 Ti with 128MB of memory.
Building the 3-D Fire Simulator was expensive and time-consuming. Approximately $1.4 million will have been spent on the project by the time it's completed, and about six years will have elapsed from the start of research and development began to completion. Private vendors are increasingly entering the market in this arena, however, so it should be expected that over time, product availability will increase as prices decline.
The commercial video game industry may even have something to offer. There is a game out now called “Wildfire,” distributed by Take Two Interactive Software, the same company behind “Grand Theft Auto.” In its current design, the game is fun but not very instructive for firefighters. Perhaps in the future, joint ventures between such commercial enterprises and firefighters might yield a game that is both entertaining and a good learning tool.
The U.S. Forest Service's San Dimas Technology Development Center developed this CD-ROM-based simulation to support command and control training. This simulation also makes use of human role-players and simulation scripts, with the goal of prompting students to make decisions as fireground commanders in a simulated fire situation. The fire propagation model used for this simulation is based on the FARSITE Fire Area Simulator. A two-dimensional topographic map of the fire area displaying the growing fire perimeter can be viewed by students during the simulation.
Although no special computer equipment is required aside from a second video card, audio equipment is needed. An audio mixing board and tape player are needed for the sound effects. Radio traffic can be handled in one of two ways: either with handheld radios or with an “integrated radio set” that connects trainees to the role-players via headsets and microphones. Purchase price for the integrated radio set is about $7,000.
In general terms, there are some drawbacks to basing a simulation primarily on video images. If video is relied on too heavily, then interactivity, user control and immersion suffer. The user becomes more of an observer and less of a participant. Users, especially younger ones who have grown up with computer games that offer lots of user control, can become frustrated with a less interactive approach.
It is difficult to determine how many people are currently using this system. “Canned” simulations exist for NWCG S-200, Initial Attack, and S-300, Extended Attack Incident Commander. In 2003, SDTDC shipped approximately 75 copies of the program to users in the United States. The program, including software, took about three years to develop at a cost of approximately $23,000. It takes role-players approximately three “dry runs” with the system before they are comfortable working with it; simulation directors need to see the system run by an experienced person before running it themselves. It could take up to a week to develop your own simulation using this system.
LOW TECH, NOT LOW BROW
In a wildland fire simulation or on a wildfire, recognition-primed decision-making will be the type of decision-making used in most instances. In some cases, trainees will not already possess enough mental “prototypes” generated by their real-life experiences to make good decisions in a simulation. In these cases, the simulation itself represents a kind of prototype experience that can be used later when the trainee is in a real-world decision-making situation. Problems with leaders making sound, timely decisions and communicating them effectively to others are identified repeatedly in investigation reports on fatality fires. Training that focuses on the improvement of these decision-making and communication skills should have a positive impact on firefighter safety over the long term.
Scripted role-playing simulation
NWCG command/general staff training courses S-420, S-520 and S-620 have been using scripted role-playing simulations for decades. These simulations require a large number of people to manage. The S-420 course, a week-long course geared toward Type-2 Incident Management Team trainees, can take a cadre as large as 35 people to manage a simulation for six eight-person teams. This cadre consists of simulation leaders, dispatchers, other role-players and evaluators.
The team of trainees is sequestered in a room and given inputs simulating those they would receive upon arrival at a new incident, including an initial incident briefing, resource orders, maps and land status information, and line officer direction for management of the incident. The simulation lasts over seven hours, during which time the team gets input from role-players simulating members of the media, landowners, politicians, cooperating agencies, firefighters, contractors and a host of others. Toward the end of the simulation, team members are expected to produce a number of standard team outputs, such as an incident status summary and an incident action plan.
The S-520 course, geared toward Type-1 Incident Management Team trainees, uses several simulations similar to the one used in S-420. For 12 teams of seven people each, this course can require more than 85 people just for simulation support. Support is in the form of simulation team members and leaders, role-players, coaches, logistics and evaluators. In the S-520 course, which lasts two weeks, simulations increase in scope and complexity as the training session progresses. This course is now being revised for the 2007 delivery; the new design will feature a shorter course with an even greater emphasis on simulation and evaluation of team interaction and decision-making.
The idea here is that as teams work together, they gel by perfecting their team processes and become capable of handling greater complexities and volumes of work. Evaluators are present during simulations at all times, monitoring team and individual performance and providing feedback in after-action reviews. The final simulation in S-520 is the grand finale of the course, and for most trainees their performance in it is the difference between passing and failing the course. This course is currently under revision for the 2007 training season.
The S-620 simulation is the same simulation as the S-520 final simulation, but trainees are in Area Command positions and must function as an Area Command Team overseeing a number of Type-1 Teams. Again, role-players provide inputs to the Area Command trainees in the form of verbal inputs delivered in person or over the phone, or through other means such as maps, faxes and other documents. The simulation is designed so that the Area Command trainees also receive a number of inputs from the Type-1 teams, and part of the evaluation for the Area Command trainees covers the direction they provided to the subordinate teams.
A significant difference between these scripted simulations and other types is that the scripted simulations were designed specifically for teams of people involved in large incident management. The other simulations were designed primarily for individual decision-makers, such as incident commanders or other fireline personnel in charge of small units or small fires. However, with some ingenuity any simulation can be adapted to work in a team environment. Learners involved in simulations at this level of the Incident Command System must engage in both analytical and recognition-primed decision-making.
Another difference is that there are virtually no visual cues in the scripted simulations. Almost all of the inputs to trainees are verbal or written in the scripted simulations, with aerial photos and maps being the most graphical visual information.
Although this is a low-tech form of simulation, it's expensive due to the large number of personnel needed as role-players, evaluators and coordinators. Not only do these personnel incur travel expenses, but they are also required to be away from their regularly assigned duties for up to two weeks at a time. Some of the other challenges associated with this type of simulation have to do with evaluation. With a team of seven or eight people involved in a hectic fire scenario, it can be difficult if not impossible for evaluators to catch all that's happening and see how all the trainees react to all of the inputs. Further, when conducting after-action reviews with teams or individuals, there's no “replay” feature available; many of the perceptions of performance during the heat of battle are just that and can't be independently verified if the perception of an evaluator differs from that of a trainee. Space is another constraint on this type of simulation; many rooms are needed, not only for the teams but also for the simulators.
Military organizations have been using terrain models for decades, both in training settings and in actual operations. Although sand tables had been used sporadically in the past for wildland fire training in the United States, there was not a concerted effort to incorporate this method into wildland fire training after 2000.
In November 2000, a group of wildland firefighters working on an initiative for wildland fire leadership development visited Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. There, firefighters were given a comprehensive briefing on how the Marine Corps teaches decision-making and tactics to its junior leaders. Marine officers are all required to complete a course of study for infantry platoon commanders at The Basic School at Quantico. Some of the training techniques used extensively at The Basic School are tactical-decision games and sand table exercises.
Tactical-decision games are basically role-playing paper exercises; sand table exercises are TDGS using a three-dimensional terrain model. The primary purpose of these training techniques is to have firefighters practice making decisions and communicating their decisions properly. Mistakes made in a low-risk training environment can be valuable learning experiences for students. This learning can later be applied on the fireground where much more is at stake.
Under the auspices of an interagency leadership development effort, Design and Delivery of Tactical-Decision Games and Sand Table Exercises was developed in 2002 for use by wildland firefighters. This handbook is based on The How To of Tactical-Decision Games by Maj. John F. Schmitt, U.S. Marine Corps. The fundamental objective of tactical-decision games is to exercise decision-making skills in a tactical context. Development of pattern-recognition skills is another objective of TDGS. Providing vicarious experiences and opportunities to practice communicating decisions are further objectives.
Tactical-decision games and sand table exercises are extremely simple, yet certain skills are required to facilitate them well. The facilitator must operate within a small set of rules. Paramount is the enforcement of a time limit; many TDGS last less than 15 minutes. In real life, most fireground commanders are required to routinely make decisions under circumstances of extreme time pressure. The simulated environment must replicate this situation. Trainees also must be put into situations where they face a dilemma. For example, should the crew be split and work in two different directions from an anchor point?
Limited information is another component of well-designed TDGS. On a real fireground, most decision-makers must operate with an incomplete set of information, yet they still must make timely decisions. In a TDG, a trainee must operate under these realistic constraints to come up with good solutions to realistic problems. An after-action review caps the experience by allowing trainees and observers to discuss possible solutions, drawing lessons out of the collective experience. A skilled TDG/STEX facilitator must be able to keep the exercise moving and make the trainee feel the time pressure, without making the scenario appear unrealistic. He or she also must be able to subtly guide the after-action review to ensure that the proper lessons are derived.
Compared to any other type of simulation, tactical-decision games and sand table exercises are cheap, and they can be done just about anywhere. All that's required for a TDG is paper and writing instruments; often a map will be useful as well. For a sand table exercise, all that is required is sand or dirt that can be shaped into a terrain model, along with a few props. Scale models of aircraft and fire engines are useful, as are green sticks to represent trees; blue string or webbing to represent creeks and rivers; wisps of cotton to represent smoke; and black and red chalk, spray paint or cloth to represent the fire area. Building a table for the sand raises the terrain model up to a level where students can comfortably view it from a standing position. All of this can be accomplished for a few hundred dollars.
Either a sand table exercise or a TDG can be designed to cover a real historical incident. For example, a sand table exercise can be put together where the terrain modelled is an actual piece of ground where a fire occurred. It is then possible to “re-fight the fire” as many times as desired, with students determining a variety of outcomes based on what action was taken.
Tactical-decision games have been used in conjunction with staff rides, where firefighters return to the scene of a significant fire event and reconstruct events that occurred there and decisions that were made. In this type of use, a TDG is a very effective way to get participants “inside the head” of the fireground commanders who were on scene. Trainees can become very engaged in the learning experience when they're actively involved in trying to determine why certain decisions were made, what information a set of actions was based on, or what they would have done themselves in similar circumstances. A wealth of information, including a wildland fire tactical-decision game library and workbook, can be found at www.fireleadership.gov in the “Leadership Toolbox.”
WHICH TO CHOOSE
On which end of the training technology spectrum should a training organization invest? The answer is “it depends.” This decision should be made based on what the desired training outcome is, who the target audience is, what the skill sets of available instructors are, and how much time and money are available.
Generally speaking, the higher up the technology scale you climb in the simulation world, the more expensive it is and the steeper the learning curve for instructors. Yet there appears to be no evidence to support the idea that more expensive training solutions are necessarily more effective ones. Indeed, although the U.S. Marine Corps has access to some of the most sophisticated computer simulations currently available, they choose to use tactical-decision games and sand table exercises because of their effectiveness as training tools for exercising decision-making skills in a tactical context.
One challenge to the use of high-tech training tools is the rapidity with which computing technology evolves. If software development cycles are lengthy, there's a very real chance that by the time the software can be used, the hardware to run it on will have changed. Another investment that's required when using high-tech training tools is the time and effort it takes to bring instructors up to speed on the capabilities of a new system. Learning how to manipulate a new system to obtain a desired set of training results can be a challenge even for the most technologically literate of instructors.
Much ado has been made about the differences in how younger generations who are coming into the work force learn. The U.S. Department of Labor shows a continuing escalation of 20- to 34-years-old employees in management jobs. A number of traits are considered typical of these workers, among them techno-literacy. Today's video games feature high-end graphics and fast-paced action; will people from this generation tend to prefer and learn better from 3-D animation-based training? No definitive answer to this question exists, but empirical observations during the use of sand table exercises with fire crews indicates that young people receive this type of training enthusiastically due to its interactivity.
Many training decisions revolve around “what we can afford” as opposed to “what we would like to have.” If this is true for your organization, then simulations such as tactical-decision games and sand table exercises may be worth institutionalizing. If your organization is interested in high-tech approaches, one to consider would be to partner with an organization that has already developed a system.
As technology evolves, computer-based simulations will continue to become easier to use, cheaper and more easily deployed. The pressing problems delaying this reality are bandwidth and the demands that computer-generated graphics place on networks and users' computers. Security concerns and agency IT policies represent additional hurdles.
Technological advances notwithstanding, there will always be a nearly limitless supply of sand. Couple that with the boundless creativity of firefighters, and you have a powerful training tool that works well without being the most expensive widget on the shelf.
Larry Sutton is the BLM Training Unit Leader, for the NIFC Fire Training Group. He also is the planning section chief on the Great Basin Type-1 Incident Management Team. Sutton holds a bachelor's of science degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana.