On Monday, four firefighters from the Cloquet Area Fire District each crashed a fire truck at least one time, and most hit multiple barriers and the occasional vehicle or even a pedestrian.
Happily, it was all on a high-tech video simulation aimed at teaching them better driving habits when they’re driving fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.
Known as a mobile driving simulator, the fire district’s latest training tool is housed in a shiny red trailer. Inside, there are two different training stations: one for training to drive a full-size fire truck; the other for ambulances, squad cars, and command vehicles (pickup trucks and SUVs that are also part of an emergency response). Massive video screens cover the front and sides of each end of the trailer’s interior. Instrument panels, a steering wheel and a comfy captain’s chair complete the replication of the cab of a fire truck or other emergency vehicle, complete with sirens and lights.
“It’s a good experience,” said firefighter/paramedic Joe Pulford after the first couple mock driving sessions. “It’s a very good replication of actually driving [a fire truck]. In the driver’s seat, everything lines up perfectly and it gives you the feeling you’re in an actual vehicle.”
The $460,000 trailer was paid for through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which also paid for some additional smart boards and computers for CAFD’s classroom.
“Next to our ladder truck, that makes it the most expensive thing we own,” said CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder with a chuckle.
Finances aside, the reason behind the additional training is simple, Schroeder said. Vehicle-related accidents during emergency response are the No. 2 cause of firefighter death and injury in the nation, after heart attacks.
He’d like to make sure no one around here is hurt or killed because of a mistake that might have been prevented through better training. As well, emergency response workers are required to take annual training courses to keep up their skills, including driving.
“This fulfills part of that,” Schroeder said. “Here you build your habits through repetitive scenarios, but you still have to get out onto the road and in traffic to really solidify it.”
In four hours Monday, the inaugural training class of four experienced firefighter/paramedics took turns behind the wheel of both training stations, working their way up through increasingly complex scenarios. They started by simply “driving” down the road and reacting to stop signs and turn signals, then CAFD Captain and lead instructor Mike Garberg programmed increased speed for the trucks, then moved to scenarios with more and more hazards, including bike riders who cut in front of the truck, a pedestrian who walks out into the roadway from behind a bus, and all kinds of cars and trucks that pull out into traffic and in front of the fire truck, forcing the driver to respond or have an “accident.”
“This is the place where you can make mistakes without repercussions,” said Garberg.
Not without fanfare, however. Each time a trainee hit a barrier, or a car that pulled in front of him during the simulation, the sound of breaking glass would fill the air in the trailer, and the screen would show the lines and cracks of a broken windshield. The simulated rearview mirrors reflected the consequences of the mistake, be it a pedestrian lying in the road or a red truck spinning around behind them.
Time to start anew.
Standing in the middle of the trailer, halfway between the two training stations, it feels like you’re in a truck. You can hear the air brakes as the truck starts and stops, feel the rumble of the engines and, yes, startle when the windshield breaks again.
Schroeder and Garberg didn’t let the trainees slow down to avoid hazards, instead they encouraged them to “steer into the space the car/truck/bike/van just left” and not to make jerky movements or overcorrect.
“It’s defensive driving — this is teaching them the avoidance part of [driving],” Schroeder said. “It teaches them not to just rely on the brakes to avoid the accident, because the vehicles we drive are heavy enough that you might not be able to stop.”
Firefighter/paramedic Sean Saddler was doing well in the initial stages of the training, but admitted that each scenario got more difficult to maneuver through. Sometimes the trainees would lose control and completely veer off the simulated roadway into simulated grass.
Saddler said the simulator felt fairly realistic.
“The only thing that doesn’t feel realistic is stopping, because you don’t feel the weight of the vehicle,” he said, recalling how he learned to drive a firetruck in a giant parking lot in Oakdale, Minn., 28 years ago. “If you’ve got a truck full of 1,000 gallons of water, that takes some getting used to.”
As the scenarios continue, the trainees progressed from driving practice to accident and fire scenes, which require the driver to decide where and how to park the fire truck.
Aside from practice and the valuable feedback each trainee gets from the instructors, Schroeder said the new simulator will help the fire district ensure that all of its staff are well trained.
“In order to build consistency and ensure that all our employees are trained to the same level, everyone runs through the same scenarios,” he said.
From Monday through Thursday of this week, Schroeder said he expected all 58 men and women — including both full-time and paid-on-call firefighters and paramedics — who work for CAFD to go through the initial simulator training.
CAFD purchased three software packages to go with the driving simulator: for firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement.
“So we can train any emergency responder,” Garberg said.
Once the CAFD staff are trained, the new training simulator will make the rounds to its partners, including fire departments in Hibbing, Virginia, Superior and Duluth, which each have an instructor already trained on the new equipment. Schroeder said Cloquet Police Commander Carey Ferrell also trained to be an instructor on the simulator in August.
It is the only mobile simulator of its type in the entire state, Schroeder said, noting that there are some fixed simulators at colleges and training centers in Minnesota.
When asked if the fact that CAFD is a fire district, made up of three formerly separate fire departments — Cloquet, Scanlon and Perch Lake, plus a contract with the Fond du Lac Reservation — helped secure the grant, Schroeder didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The nature of the fire district and our history of cooperative training were both instrumental in getting the grant.”