Vehicle Simulator Reduces Risk During Firefighting & Rescue Training at O'Hare Int'l

Ken Wysocky
Published in: 

Emergency crews at O'Hare International Airport (ORD) can now train without the omnipresent danger of blazing flames and structural collapse. There's no smoke and mirrors involved, just a customized aircraft firefighting and rescue (ARFF) simulator that safely replicates actual emergency situations with virtually no risk to equipment or personnel.

The high-tech simulator mimics the cockpit of a Striker 4500 ARFF vehicle by Oshkosh Airport Products - the predominant unit in ORD's fleet. The airport purchased the training device last fall for about $400,000. The simulator provides the 250 full-time ARFF personnel assigned to ORD with a safer and more cost-effective way to train for calamitous events, says Lt. Thomas Wagner, live-fire training specialist for the Chicago Fire Department.

"If you make a mistake using real firefighting equipment, you can damage the equipment," Wagner explains. "If you make a mistake with the simulator, you push a reset button. That's the bottom line."

Project: Simulated Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting Training 
Location: Chicago's O'Hare Int'l Airport 
Equipment: Striker 4500 Simulator
Supplier: Oshkosh Airport Products
Est. Cost: $400,000
Purchased: Fall 2014
Funding Source: Airport 
Main Components: Vehicle dashboard; seven 55-inch high-definition wide-screen monitors; steering wheel & equipment controls
Full-time ARFF Personnel: 250 (50 always onsite)
Equipment Fleet: Roughly 2 dozen firefighting & emergency rescue vehicles 
Equipment Manufacturers: American LaFrance (now defunct); Emergency Vehicles; E-ONE; Oshkosh Airport Products; Pierce Manufacturing; Reeves EMS; Spartan ERV; Stinar; Tempest Technology; Wheeled Coach

Practicing skills on the new simulator is also "greener" and less expensive. "We're not spending money on fuel and emitting truck exhaust for training purposes," he adds. 

Additionally, the simulator system allows ORD to provide intensive training more often than it might otherwise be able. "While a traditional ARFF firefighter may typically participate in real-world training once every year or every other year, the Striker Simulator allows on-going, virtual-reality training on a regular schedule," says Jeff Resch, vice president and general manager of Oshkosh Airport Products.

Believed to be the only unit of its kind in the United States, the customized simulator recreates the cockpit of a Striker vehicle by blending computer software with a truck dashboard and high-resolution wide-screen LG television monitors. A group of seven 55-inch monitors surround trainees and offer a 180-degree view from the driver's seat, just like the windows of an actual Striker. One of the screens is mounted overhead so operators can practice using a high-reach extendable turret, notes Rich Voakes, government and regional sales manager for Oshkosh Airport Products.

"You're surrounded by monitors and sit on a truck (stage) set, with the same controls, joysticks and so forth - just like a real truck," Voakes explains. "It includes an actual dashboard from a Striker, along with an actual steering wheel, seat and firefighting controls; so it's exactly like getting into the cockpit of one of our trucks. With the monitors, it's like looking out the actual windows of a truck."

How real are the images? When trainees inside the cockpit look right and left, they can see the eyes blinking on virtual firefighters in other virtual trucks. "It's that detailed and that realistic," says Voakes.  

"When you move the joysticks, they even move the boom up and down or extend it at the same speeds as a real rig," adds Wagner.

Virtual Reality

Software creates a variety of different firefighting scenarios - from an aircraft on fire to a field blazing in flames. Trainers choose specific emergency situations or scenarios via a drop-down menu. They can then add more fires or eliminate them at will, and can bring up to seven other virtual ARFF vehicles into the picture, so to speak, to simulate the congestion of an actual emergency scene. In addition, the simulator can portray up to 25 different aircraft for training purposes - from smaller regional jets up to an Airbus 380, Voakes says.

To create events that feel realistic, the system combines video footage and illustrated environments of Striker vehicles in action with a full audio track. A variety of weather and environmental conditions, such as rain, snow, fog, night and bright daylight can be depicted. And the system can also portray the delivery of firefighting agents such as dry chemicals, foam, water and even Halotron, a liquefied compressed gas that stops fires by disrupting the combustion process.

"You can even show them (virtual firefighters) getting out of their trucks to evacuate people or using hoses to fight a fire by hand," Voakes relates. "You can put up a ladder, too. The options are virtually limitless. Then, you can score the users (trainees) and rate how they performed."

ORD's Striker Simulator also allows firefighters to train for situations that would be difficult - if not downright impossible - to stage in real life. For example, it would be extremely complicated to tip a burning plane on its side for training; but the simulator can repeat such a scene as often as required.

"If you train with a truck and make a mistake, you can break something and incur expensive repairs," Voakes summarizes. "Plus, with a simulator, you're not putting anybody in harm's way. They're just sitting in a chair."

Driven to Succeed

The Striker Simulator is also a great tool for teaching personnel how to drive large ARFF vehicles, adds Voakes. "We spent more than a year taking videos getting the motion and feel of what you experience when you're driving a real truck," he remarks. "We have it down to the point where it feels exactly the same as driving a real truck."

Because ARFF equipment is so challenging to operate, Voakes considers it "super important" to use simulations for teaching and practice. A Striker 4500, for example, is nearly 45 feet long, about 10 feet wide and roughly 11 feet tall, with a gross-vehicle weight of 124,000 pounds. ARFF vehicles also carry water to areas of the airfield that don't have hydrants nearby, adds Wagner. At about 8 pounds per gallon of water, a full water tank adds another 36,000 pounds of weight for drivers to manage. 

Even though the water tanks are baffled to minimize sloshing, many drivers tip over trucks during simulated training exercises. "You have to turn very slow ease into everything, just like with a flight simulator," Voakes advises. "You can't oversteer."

The simulator also allows firefighters to train on the Striker's technical apparatus, like the Snozzle, a 65-foot-long extendable articulated boom with a 3-foot-long tip that pierces aircraft bodies to deliver fire-repressing agents like foam.

Before ORD purchased its simulator, firefighters motored around the airfield in actual Strikers to learn how to drive the large ARFF vehicle. Apparatus instruction occurred inside training facilities.

Firefighters at ORD are not required to log a specific number of hours on the simulator, notes Wagner. They train until their instructor says they are ready for real equipment. Younger personnel who are more comfortable with video gaming generally take to the simulator very quickly, he adds. "It usually takes older guys a while to get used to it." 

When instructors feel trainees have enough simulator experience under their belts, they test their prowess in a real Striker, typically with a mock-up of an airplane. "That way they can poke holes (with the Snozzle) in the side of a full-size steel mock-up of an aircraft," Wagner comments.

A Lot to Master

ARFF personnel at ORD must be proficient with a large complement of equipment. The airport sprawls over 7,200 acres, and last year ranked as the world's busiest in terms of passenger and cargo traffic (nearly 882,000 arrivals and departures).

The Chicago facility maintains 50 firefighters on airport grounds 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Crews use a wide array of equipment, including: 
  • eight Striker 4500 ARFF vehicles; 
  • three pumper fire trucks - two E-ONE Cyclones; one by Crimson, now known as Spartan ERV; 
  • one tower ladder heavy-rescue vehicle and one squad company rapid-intervention vehicle, both by Pierce Manufacturing; 
  • 6 Oshkosh Striker 3000s; 
  • a hazardous material unit by American LaFranc, which is no longer in business; 
  • a mobile command-center communication unit by Emergency Vehicles;
  • Three advance life-support ambulances by Wheeled Coach Industries; 
  • a stair truck by Stinar Corp.; 
  • a mobile ventilation unit by Tempest Technology Corp.; and
  • a towable decontamination unit by Reeves EMS. 

Striker training is the only instruction that occurs in a simulator. For all other vehicles, instructors and trainees use actual equipment at ORD's onsite training facility. "We bring engineers and drivers out to the facility, which includes a driver's training course and a full-size aircraft mock-up, to be trained and evaluated on apparatus operations," Wagner says. 

It's tough to top the convenience of the Striker simulator, Wagner relates. "It's great to be able to put brand-new personnel into the unit, before they go nuts on the real deal," he comments. "It saves us not only fuel, but basic wear and tear on the trucks. Plus, it keeps our trucks fire-ready during training. If there's an emergency, off they go."

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