NAPLES — While most people are aware that firefighters risk their lives on the job every day — battling burning buildings, wildland fires, and more — many do not think about the risks involved with getting to a scene in a timely manner. The fire engines are large vehicles that must maneuver through traffic safely and through all types of adverse weather conditions.
A rare opportunity arrived last Sunday in the form of a large trailer worth close to a half a million dollars, featuring two state of the art emergency vehicle driving simulators. Inside the trailer, it is set up with a simulator on each end, and a workstation in the middle for the operators/instructor.
South Boundary Fire Chief Tony Rohrwasser traveled to Pocatello to complete training on the use of the trailer. As a Level 1 Instructor, Rohrwasser is able to train people how to use the simulator and guide people through the various scenarios. Although this does not replace the Emergency Vehicle Driver Training that includes eight hours in the classroom and then time behind the wheel, navigating a tough cone course, it does help drivers develop or hone their skills.
Each simulator is set up to be incredibly realistic, from the adjustable seats with seatbelts that must be buckled, to the myriad of buttons, dials, switches, windshield wipers, adjustable mirrors, pump switch, jake brake, and much more. The screen wraps around the sides of the simulated drivers, giving them a moving picture that is like sitting in the driver’s seat of an actual truck. To add to the realism, the seats are attached to hydraulics which moves with the scene, bouncing over curbs, shaking on impact, or bumping down a dirt road.
In the center of the trailer is the command center with two computer screens, one for each simulator. From there, the instructor chooses what scenario the drivers will be taking part in. They run a range from cone courses all the way through emergency response scenarios. The drivers can practice parallel parking with cones, or backing the engine into the fire station, or they can navigate heavy city traffic in response to a fire.
The multitude of scenarios tests each driver, from beginners to seasoned firefighters. Another way it does this is by allowing the operator to control variables such as the weather. The simulator can add day and night driving transitioning from one to the other, and it has options for rain, wind, fog, snow and ice.
“We get a lot of people who are afraid of adverse conditions,” said Rohrwasser. “I don’t like adverse conditions — rain, snow, ice — but we can do that here.”
Paradise Valley Acting Fire Chief Mike Glazier took a turn in the simulator on Monday.
“It was awesome. This was a good thing to learn,” said Glazier. “It will make me more aware when driving.”
With so many different things to learn when driving an emergency vehicle, the simulator allows the drivers to practice in an entirely safe situation, while navigating things such as the changing of the siren when approaching an intersection.
“It is a lot coming at them — change the cadence of the siren, use the air horn, do everything and it is all coming at them fast,” said Rohrwasser. “Now you have traffic and intersections. What do you do?”
“If you start coming into a green light and start wailing on your horn, you are going to get a bottleneck, and no one moves because people panic,” he explained about when to use sirens and horns. “So in some of the situations you are going to get in here — they are going to stop.”
The realistic scenarios were not limited just to navigating normal traffic. They included obstacles such as wild animals, people suddenly backing out of driveways, tractor trailers failing to yield, and more.
As one driver prepared to drive the simulator, Rohrwasser set the scenario.
“I’ll put him on a Code 3, that is an emergency, and we will have him follow another unit. We will put him on a barn fire,” he said.
From the operation center, Rohrwasser is able to monitor and instruct. The screen in front of him showed the drive from many different views, from an aerial view to the same view the driver was seeing. He was also able to see a live view of the driver, to just stress level, and also of the drivers feet to watch how they were using the pedals. He was also able to throw obstacles at him like blowing out a tire, and he could choose which tire it would be.
“We are going to mess with you, OK?” Rohrwasser said to the driver, preparing to demonstrate the simulator. He dimmed the daylight into night. “But you know what is worse than just night? Fog and a little bit of rain …”
Over the sound of the engine came the sounds of rain, and then the weather turned to snow, requiring windshield wipers.
At the end of each simulation, the computer shows a breakdown of everything that the driver has done, good and bad, to aid with the training.
The Emergency Vehicle Driving Simulator will be in Boundary County for two weeks.
“It is open to all the fire and the EMS is the county,” said Rohrwasser. “I am encouraging board members and things like that, to come out and check it out, see the kind of stuff that is available to us.”
The simulator was commissioned toward the end of 2018. It went to Clearwater Academy first, then it went to Coeur d’Alene Fire for a week, then on to the academy in Coeur d’Alene, before coming to Boundary County.
“My guess is that every other year this will make the circuit from southern Idaho up to northern Idaho and back down,” said Rohrwasser. “It is huge to have this here.”
“A lot of agencies don’t realize the resources that are available to us up here,” said Rohrwasser. “We get all these things through the state and can be brought up here.”
In an area where we count on volunteers to become firefighters to keep the county safe, a training opportunity like the simulator brings a safe, real world, way to train.