SIDNEY — Sidney Fire Department’s Assistant Chief Eric Barhorst grips the steering wheel of a 53-foot ladder fire truck and follows closely behind another fire truck responding to a downed airplane near the water. Along the way, busy intersections, pedestrians and even a dog in the street are all scenarios he safely maneuvers around to arrive on scene of the emergency. — Thankfully, it was just practice.
As a result of a 2017 federal firefighters grant, members of Shelby County fire departments are receiving training in a Mobile Driving Simulation Lab system Sept. 13-15 on the Shelby County EMA grounds on Fair Road. The mobile lab trailer, built by Doron Precision Systems Inc., which also makes military truck simulators, cost about a half a million dollars, Ohio Fire Academy instructors say.
As Barhorst sits in the driver’s seat in the simulation trailer and looks out the windows of the truck with sirens screaming, the computer images, sounds and movements recreates a very realistic experience of feeling as though the vehicle is being driven. Responding to a downed plan on a beach is only one of several scenarios Ohio Fire Academy instructors present for firefighters to think through.
Each day, 16 students will train, eight in the morning for four hours, and eight in the afternoon for four hours, to practice judgment and driving skills in real world situations. Along with Shelby County firefighters, members from Tipp City, Bradford, Gettysburg and North Star Fire Departments also signed up to participate, said Fort Loramie Assistant Chief/Secretary of the Shelby County Firefighter Association Tim Siegel. Shelby County has been waiting a year and a half for its turn to utilize the trailer, he said. Use of the lab is free for locations with 50 members or at least three departments.
Firefighters begin training by watching a 40 minute PowerPoint presentation on Ohio laws when driving an emergency vehicle and on the necessary attitude when behind the wheel. Then first responders get behind the wheel to learn basic instructions of how to start the vehicle and what to be aware of. Attendees can sit at both ends of the trailer at computer simulated driving stations to operate ambulances, staff vehicles and fire trucks with instructors by their side coaching them along.
“There is more to it than just driving the vehicle. There is decision making. You have to pay attention to what is going on around you,” said Ohio Fire Academy instructor Mike Reenan, who is also a division chief with Colerain Township Fire. “Getting them thinking is probably more important than anything we do in here.”
Reenan is joined in training by fellow Ohio Fire Academy instructors Wauseon Fire Chief Rick Sluder and Paul Montezuma with Miami Township Fire. The lab has about 15 different instructors who take turns teaching across Ohio.
The steering wheel, brakes, and overall simulated experience is very different based upon which type of vehicle students are driving, Reenan explained. There are 12 computers powering the lab, he said.
“Everybody got seven or eight different scenarios today. We start out with skilled driving and then move into emergency operations,” Sluder said.
“It was very realistic. And the unexpected was pretty cool,” Barhorst said.
In the past Sidney Department of Fire & Emergency Services has trained with fire apparatus at Custenborder Fields but Barhorst said they had to stop at the location because they were tearing up the asphalt. He also noted they cannot receive the same type training of interacting with other emergency vehicles, or interference of the public, vehicles or animals as they do with the computer simulator.
The Shelby County Firefighters Association noted the training “provides a bridge between classroom-delivered instruction and actual operation of a motor vehicle on a prepared course or public roadway. … Drivers can practice making decisions in simulated life and death situations similar to those actually encountered on the road that would be too dangerous in the real world.”
“Getting them to think (is the goal.) Times have changed and we, fire and police, all of us, need to change our way of thinking as far as driving when going to an emergency. If we don’t get there, we haven’t accomplished anything. And we have just created another problem for someone else to deal with,” Reenan said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.