​​​Training for Hazardous Tasks in Virtual Environments

Public safety trainers have been using simulations for as long as public safety has been training. Firefighters do not learn how to pull a hose, raise a ladder, or rescue a child from a window at their first house fire. Paramedics do not acquire the skills to intubate when encountering their first unconscious patient. And police officers do not learn how to make high-risk traffic stops by pulling over their first speeding car. Instead, public safety instructors have used various methods to teach skills and evaluate candidates in simulated exercises. Advances in computerized training, particularly in virtual and augmented reality systems, give instructors new tools to train the next generation. 


According to 2022 research by Eduardo Herrera-Aliaga and Lisbell D. Estrada at the Universidad Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, the first full-body simulator used for training nurses debuted in 1911. CPR class participants are likely familiar with the modern-day equivalents of that first simulator. The aviation industry has been using flight simulators for nearly a century. The Link Trainer is often credited as the first commercially built flight simulator, with more than half a million airmen learning to fly in a Link Trainer during WWII. However, the first customers of the Link Trainer were not the military but amusement parks, which used these simulators as rides to attract customers seeking new and thrilling entertainment experiences. Today, it is easier to find a virtual reality (VR) system at an arcade than at the local training grounds. 

HazMat Training in Virtual Reality 

In 2019, the Hazardous Materials Section of the Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office (“the office”) learned about a hazardous materials training program that 360 Immersive created for the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. This mobile app program simulated walking through several locations with various hazards, including hazardous materials. By turning the mobile device, the user scanned areas of the scene to spot the dangers. 

Based on this experience, the office explored the potential virtual and augmented reality systems available to improve hazardous materials training. One reason the office recognized that hazardous materials training could benefit from virtual and augmented reality systems was due to the cost and complexity of staging simulated exercises. For example, to conduct training exercises on, say, a DOT-406 tank truck hauling gasoline, the office either needed a real DOT-406 tank truck or a mock-up at the training grounds. Even then, it is unlikely the office could set the truck on fire. And while live fire training on transportation props is available at some larger training centers, agencies need personnel and scheduling flexibility to cover shifts in order to get their trainees there. Perhaps a virtual re-creation could help bridge the gap between training conducted during a regular work shift and full-scale exercises at a few specially equipped training centers. 

The office explored similar solutions for industries already adopting virtual and augmented reality training. Reading through research papers, the office recognized several benefits: VR training was more effective in maintaining the trainee’s attention and concentration (a real struggle for instructors), and immersive learners retained 75% of what the training taught in comparison to a 10% retention rate from reading and traditional presentations. Beyond the time and cost savings when trying to recreate complex hazardous materials incidents on the training ground, students could be better prepared using virtual and augmented reality. 

The office looked at several VR companies already developing professional training programs. After going through its procurement process, the office started working with PIXO VR to further develop and adapt a proof-of-concept simulation it had created for Concordia University involving an overturned over-the-road tank truck on fire. That initial proof of concept put the trainee on the scene with the enflamed tank truck. No matter what the trainee did, the tank truck would explode at the end of the scenario. 

The office and PIXO VR adapted that first scenario by adding a menu for the instructor to select the type of transport vehicle, chemicals involved, and other container types that might be involved. Then, they added the ability to choose a day or night scene with or without fire. Trainees are expected to don personal protective equipment, identify the material involved using clues such as the vehicle type, container type, size, and construction features, and placards, labels, and markings to identify the correct initial isolation distance and public protective measures from the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). Trainees could even simulate a water application to control the fire. Up to four participants could be in the simulation simultaneously to work as a crew. After securing additional funding, they were also able to develop a train derailment scenario with standard references available. 

Students who used the simulator provided revealing feedback. One interesting note was that many trainees, including experienced firefighters, felt too close to the scene (even though the scenario distances were based on the ERG). This revealed that many experienced responders may be unfamiliar with the initial isolation distances in the ERG and tended to stage much farther away from the scene than recommended. 

Another apparent issue of concern is that not everyone is comfortable wearing VR goggles. Problems included the discomfort of having screens strapped to their faces, general aversion toward technology, nausea, motion sickness, and other effects. The VR training roll-out, which coincided with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, compounded problems. Sterilizing the VR goggles between uses became a major deployment factor. 

The office also faced difficulty deploying the simulator to other training sites. Because of the limitations of early VR hardware systems available in 2019, the office had to use VR headsets tethered to gaming PCs. This process involved setting up tracking sensors, headsets, and gaming PCs for each training session in a new location, and each training system required a fair amount of space and setup time. The latest generation, which utilizes stand-alone headsets, is much more capable and adaptable. There are trade-offs though. The resolution in the simulation is not as robust. The systems do cost less, and the setup is much simpler. 

Look Ahead 

Virtual and augmented reality training for first responders continues to grow. The office partnered with BadVR Inc. on the CommanDING Tech Challenge, an open innovation prize competition sponsored by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), helping advise on their Augmented Reality Operations Center product. The challenge tasked participants with creating an incident command dashboard that integrated video feeds, live tracking of responders, building information systems and 3D LIDAR point clouds, and combining it into a single interface for incident commanders. One potential use case for these digital incident command dashboards is tabletop exercises, as they provide an excellent tool with which to do them. Instead of exercise injects utilizing presentation slides, the incidents can be programmed to occur at pre-set times or after certain actions are taken (or not taken). Several exercise participants can view the scene in real-time together, with the incident progressing in the background as it would in real life. 

NextGen Interactions has also participated in prize challenges from NIST, and NIST funding has created HazVR. Participants in HazVR are given a handheld multi-gas meter and must identify sources and concentrations of gas releases. The behavior of gasses released in the simulation is based on the same models that hazardous materials planners currently use for consequence analysis for chemical facilities. Hence, the concentrations and locations are realistic. The handheld multi-gas meters are tracked and can be played back later to show where participants were holding their meters and for how long. During playback, the gasses can also be visualized (even if they were not visible during the training). 

Participants have told NextGen Interactions that they now understood after using the system that “low to the ground” meant inches off the ground, not waist level like they had been doing throughout their careers. Tracking how long a meter was held in one location can help teach trainees to slow down as they use their meters. Most people move and walk faster than their meters can accurately measure the atmosphere. This means they could be well into a hazardous atmosphere before their meters tell them it is unsafe. 


Virtual and augmented reality systems offer new tools to improve the training experience for first responders. Commercial off-the-shelf solutions are available. As more people accept and adopt virtual and augmented reality as a training tool, more solutions are sure to follow. 

Like any other technology or training device, virtual and augmented reality systems have advantages and disadvantages. How these technologies improve training will depend on the solutions available to the training agencies and input from the instructors and training programs. These training devices are not a replacement for gifted and competent instructors, hands-on skills development, or traditional practical exercises. Rather, virtual and augmented reality systems provide another tool in the instructor’s toolbox. The success of these training platforms depends on quality instructors who understand how to best leverage new technology to complement their training programs. 

Ryan Putman

Ryan Putman is a deputy fire marshal for the Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office. Ryan has over 16 years of public safety experience, working for private emergency medical services (EMS) agencies, and volunteer, part-time/full-time combination, and career fire departments. He started with the State Fire Marshal’s Office in 2016 as a hazardous materials instructor and now performs hazardous materials code enforcement and fire investigations for the fire marshal’s office. Ryan started the fire marshal’suncrewedvehicle program and is a nationally recognized expert on the use ofuncrewedvehicles in hazardous environments, with several published papers and speaking invitations across North America. He also started the virtual reality training program at the fire marshal’s office and was a public safety partner for NIST’s Public Safety Communications ResearchCommanDINGTech Challenge. Ryan earned his Associate of Science from Weber State University, Bachelor of Science in Environmental Management from Columbia Southern University, and Master of Science in Management and Leadership from Western Governors University. 



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