Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service have been very progressive in the adoption of emerging technologies and are looking to change the training, learning and development landscape of the Fire and Rescue Service nationally by introducing Virtual Reality Fire Investigation training and 360 films for the education of the public.
Simply put, VR training is effective because it tricks the user’s brain into believing that what they’re experiencing is real. Learning in VR can lead to reduced training times, better knowledge retention and overall improvement in job performance.
Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service have been beating the drum regarding the massive potential that VR can bring to our training, learning and development teams. Now after several years we are not beating the drum so hard as services start to see the potential of virtual reality and how it can change and influence how we deliver training and learning in the coming years, hopefully now realising its potential.
The training revolution is here; join the revolution
The story starts some five years ago when working on a road-safety project: our VF4 car (Virtual Fatal 4) needed the safety film updating and this is when I decided to take a completely different path and started to look into 360-degree filming possibilities. The outcome of this deviation from traditional filming techniques, the now used Worldwide VF4-360 road-safety film (and truly this is a story for another day), started me on the path of looking at all emerging technologies, mainly virtual technologies and 360 filming.
A chance meeting at the Emergency Services Show back in 2015 saw the first of many meetings and conversations between me and Alex Harvey from RiVR (Reality in Virtual Reality). After a demonstration of virtual reality using the HTC Vive headset, I instantly saw the massive potential that this technology could bring to the fire and rescue service, and as a Level 2 fire investigation officer (now tier 2), I saw how this could fundamentally change this area of training for the better. This is where the hard work started as I needed to get senior managers within Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service on board.
This meant explaining how VR is a technology that creates a virtual environment, placing the trainee inside a simulated environment by transporting them to another time, place or situation. Viewers can then interact and manipulate a 3D world for an experience closer to reality.
It became very evident to me that this potential new style of learning could not just be explained: it 100% had to be experienced. When it’s not possible to easily demonstrate the fully immersive experience that putting on a headset provides, how can we comprehend the benefits of this new technology? So after more conversations with Alex and RiVR, it was agreed that, jointly, we would produce a proof-of-concept training environment.
We needed to produce a proof of concept that we could use to demonstrate this totally immersive and engaging way of learning and developing our staff. I located two different venues here in Leicester: The Corah building (an empty, old Victorian building that was used for the hosiery industries and was now an arson hotspot so an ideal venue) and Parker Drive, a small industrial area ready for demolition, so time was not on our side. After some frantic phone calls to the demolition company, we had permission to film for one day and after that the buildings were coming down.
To say we were up against it is an understatement. We set up at Parker Drive and this is where I was first introduced to a technique called photogrammetry, a process of taking hundreds and sometimes thousands of photographs in sequence and then allowing a computer program to stitch them all together, creating a photorealistic 360 digital picture (environment).
I was learning and taking information on board at such a speed, and to say I was a complete novice in this area would be an understatement. I like to think of myself as an ‘ideas’ type of person.
After another meeting with Alex, the two completely different buildings, approximately 3 miles apart, were brought together so seamlessly that they could have been built like that. Totally amazing.
We decided to 3D model a selection of items that can be interacted with within the scene. Again, I go back to the earlier statement that you need to experience the scene through a headset to understand the powerfully immersive nature of this technology. The items included a burnt box of matches, a burnt smoke alarm and a firefighter’s helmet; what really blew people’s minds when showing this was the ability to pick up an item (with controller), say the matches, with one hand and simultaneously pick up the evidence bag with the other hand and place the matches into the evidence bag for further investigation, as they may have evidential value.
The interaction element of this training is so real and immersive, people believe that they are actually there, creating a memory that can then be recalled at a real fire investigation to assist the inspecting officer.
The environment is a free roam, so you have the ability to walk around up to a 5m2 area; the floor is covered in fire debris and metal girders and people actually step over them when immersed. The feeling is real to the extent that some people lose their balance.
We added an open (burnt away) doorway on the second floor with a sheer drop to ground level. This, simply put, convinced any doubters of the realism that VR brings into the real world. When anyone approaches the two-floor drop, just looking at their body language shows what they are experiencing. They start to slow down and take shorter steps and even put their hands out sideways to steady themselves on the walls (which only exist in the virtual world). They then stop just short of the drop and lean forward, looking down, then left and right. Most will not step out from the doorway. Why? Because although they know they are safe in a flat-floored lecture room, what their eyes see and the brain calculates is that they will fall. Numerous people have said they got butterflies in their stomach when looking out because their mind is telling them it’s real.
And that’s the power of Virtual Reality Training.
We have inherited the past but are going to create the future
This demonstration allowed us to now show the powerful nature of VR and we attended several shows and visited other Fire and Rescue Services throughout the UK, and the response was all very positive with interest from the NFCC (National Fire Chiefs Council).
We needed to find a solution that not only addressed the training needs but was also repeatable, recordable, consistent and cost effective, whilst maintaining a high standard of learning.
I approached our Chief Fire Officer, who was very impressed with the original proof of concept, asking for funding to create a purpose-built fire scene, which we could then burn so that we could create and develop our own environment. Funding was given and three months later, we were all at Derbyshire training centre with a container all boarded out, decorated and dressed ready for ignition (thanks to Dave Coss). We knew where we were going to start the fire and a second seat of fire. Then within less than 10 minutes, the fire had been lit and extinguished. It took several days to set up, then destroyed in a fraction of that time, just showing how quick a fire can develop in the right conditions.
This scene then went through being scanned and recreated using photogrammetry. We wanted to demonstrate how interactive VR can be, and so we 3D modelled over 80 items from within the scene, carefully removing each in turn and then replacing it so the scene was rebuilt ready for a training course the following week.
The major difference now was that the training courses could only look and not really investigate as there were a number of future courses needing to use that scene. Our scene would give each trainee the ability to, in the virtual world, remove every item leaving four bare walls, floor and ceiling, enabling the trainee to have a close look at burn and smoke patterns.
Once they had completed their investigation, at the flick of a switch, all items were returned to their original places; then the trainee could watch the 360 video in the headset of the fire being ignited and could see the development of the fire and compare to their conclusion (hypothesis) of how the fire started, developed and spread.
What this style of training does is enable each trainee to experience a full investigation in their own time, with the ability to remove items (limited possibility in current training), and then the instructors, when trainees have finished, can reset the scene instantly at the push of a button. We have created repeatable quality training that is scalable. If all services take up this type of training for fire investigation, it has the possibility to start standardising FI training nationally. It also has the potential to be used by Police scenes of crime officers and forensic investigators.
Fire Investigation would be carried out 80–90% of the time in the virtual world with no possibility of people being contaminated with the by-products of a fire. It will be cleaner, safer and repeatable with training being carried out in a safe sterile environment.
What are the positives of using virtual reality for training? And can VR be the reason for redesigning our teaching and learning solutions?
Will VR change the way humans learn?
- Strengthens knowledge retention through easily repeatable tasks, VR has a 75% retention rate.
- Improved ability to deliver high-risk and difficult-to-replicate training scenarios safely and effectively.
- Increased emotional engagement in a safe setting for learners and instructors.
- Faster training with improved learner confidence and focus.
- Safer varied training environments leading to accelerated learning.
- Allows operators and crew to train for unpredictable events and hazardous situations in a safe sterile, controlled environment, with little to no risk.
- Repeatable tasks can be re-run and committed to memory. Mistakes can be made safely and learned from.
I believe this best describes how virtual reality can and will work:
Virtual reality works by suspending disbelief the same way we do when reading a novel or watching a movie; an artificial reality can be designed to enable experiential learning, scenario-based learning, social learning, workplace training and more. The science works much in the same way cognitive behavioural therapy is successfully utilised by making pathways in the brain which create long-term memories. It allows the learner to gain skills more quickly, with longevity and in a completely safe environment.
We have also in addition to the VR fire investigation project now started to use a system called RiVR-Link to deliver Fires in Tall Building training to all our operational firefighters. We now put the whole watch in VR-360 headsets and deliver a discussion-based session; we facilitate the session. It’s such a simple method but it’s getting great evaluation results. We play a video of the filmed scenario with a time line showing where to pause the film and a list of questions to start the discussions. What I have noticed is that because all the attendees have a headset on there are no distractions and everyone feels totally immersed in the film, as if they are actually there.
We have learned that social distancing has helped us to ensure that all the attendees are spaced adequately apart as people start to talk about what they can see and what’s happening, then they will point at something not realising that someone is sat next to them. We have even had some attendees try to move out of the way when firefighters in the film walk past them (in reality they walk past the camera). It shows how immersive this training is, and how real it feels.
The response has been incredible with early evaluation showing a really positive desire from the crews for more training of this style.
I used to say that this was the training of the future, but the training of the future has arrived and if it is embraced, it will change the training landscape of not only the Fire and Rescue Service but of all blue light and first responders throughout the world. That’s a big quote. Put a headset on and tell me that there is no potential there to improve training.
For more information, go to www.leics-fire.gov.uk/