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Practice makes perfect

Reporter gets behind the wheel of a virtual fire truck, which helps firefighters statewide master driving under duress

BRATTLEBORO—Three teenagers dart across the road, somehow oblivious to the siren, the lights, and the big red firetruck.

“Watch out for the schoolkids,” warns firefighter and investigator Rusty Sage of the Brattleboro Fire Department (BFD).

I slam on the brakes.

The speedometer swiftly descends: 30, 25, 20, 16, 12, 10. The massive rig continues skidding forward, propelled by its own weight. The kids are in line with the truck’s grill.

The firetruck jerks to a stop. The last teen hops onto the sidewalk.

I breathe deep and drive past the high school in search of a burning building. A big red arrow appears, pointing right. I turn the steering wheel, it spins like a top, and I wonder how easy it is to two-wheel a fire truck.

Green light. I turn. A flash of movement on the left. An SUV runs the light. I slam on the brakes again. Again, the truck takes forever to stop. I miss the SUV by hair.

“You queasy yet?” asks Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi.

The simulator comes with its own puke bucket.

To anyone standing in the parking lot behind the Central Fire Station on Elliot Street, the driving simulator looks like a white tin storage trailer.

Step through the door, however, and you enter the training zone.

Equipped with a surround video screen that mimics the view from a firetruck’s windows, the driving simulator vibrates, brakes, and steers like the real thing. The dashboard is a duplicate of what one would see in a real firetruck, right down to the siren switch.

According to Bucossi, a federal grant obtained by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., helped purchase the simulator. It is jointly owned by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the Vermont Fire Service Training Council, and the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.

“It’s like sitting in a huge Nintendo,” says Bucossi.

With a click of the mouse from an auxiliary computer, the simulator mirrors the experience of driving in snow, sleet, ice, or with a blown tire. The computer program also helps the firefighters practice responding to different types of emergencies in rural or urban settings.

“I’m okay,” I say, squinting at the computer-generated city streets.

I maneuver the firetruck through a construction site, squeezing its “frame” between a construction worker and a white compact car (which I’m pretty sure contained a mother, her small children, a puppy, and three kittens).

Earlier, Shift Lt. Chuck Keir “responded” to a pileup on the Interstate involving a chemical truck. Maneuvering the ladder truck through a resulting traffic jam, he brought the truck near the collision, parking on an angle to protect the emergency responders from oncoming traffic.

“It’s another great training tool,” says Bucossi.

Practice, practice, practice

All 25 career firefighters took a turn behind the simulator’s steering wheel last week. The practice reinforces the department’s driving policies and allows the firefighters to test their responsiveness in a low-risk setting, Bucossi says.

BFD requires that every career firefighter be able to drive and operate every department vehicle safely. Trainee firefighters receive driving instruction at the Vermont Fire Academy, operated by the state’s Division of Fire Safety. This training continues when they join the BFD, Bucossi says.

The 12 “call staff,” who respond to larger emergencies and receive a small stipend, also know how to handle many of the rigs.

“We can put basically 30 people at the emergency scene in 15 to 20 minutes,” he says.

Bucossi says the cross-training affords the department flexibility during an emergency. It’s a point of pride for the department, he notes.

The firefighters had three days to train in the computer-generated landscape. The police and public works departments followed.

Last week marked the BFD’s first run with the simulator, which travels around Vermont.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, as a carrier of municipal insurance policies, supports emergency personnel training with the simulator because the extra practice in a safe setting can reduce accident rates and therefore insurance rates, Bucossi says.

The practice last week has helped reinforce the department’s driving polices for the firefighters, he notes.

One such policy, explains Bucossi, requires drivers to stop at red lights and stop signs and make eye contact with other non-emergency drivers. This BFD policy has help reduce the number of collisions between cars and fire trucks en route to an emergency.

The time lost by making eye contact ensures that everyone in the private cars stays safe and that the emergency trucks make it to the emergency, he says.

Bucossi says that emergency calls to the department over the past five years have increased. Last year, the department hit a new record of 2,440 calls, he said.

Bucossi points to a few factors for the department’s increased call volume.

Municipal governments and the federal Department of Homeland Security have asked fire departments to take on more specialized training since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Homeland Security has awarded grant monies for such trainings. This spring, Bucossi and his crew will train in swift water rescue.

Traditionally, he adds, citizens call their fire department when they need help, and departments are being asked to do more and more.

‘Every situation is different’

BFD differs from larger departments in cities like Boston or New York, where firefighters train on specific equipment like a ladder truck.

Driving training happens in stages, says Bucossi. Seasoned department members will take the newbies to empty lots for them to practice backing up or turning around.

Next, the new drivers practice on quieter town streets after hours.

Finally, they’ll drive the trucks back to the station after an emergency.

Eventually, new drivers will take a final test that puts them through driving and operating the equipment, right down to quizzing them on the size of tire that the vehicle uses. Only then does the day come where the new firefighter hears, “Today is your day to drive,” Bucossi says.

“One of the downfalls of emergency driving is that there’s no good way to train them [new firefighters] to drive in an emergency response mode,” he notes.

“Every emergency situation is different,” Bucossi says.

Steel nerves

Bucossi says the simulator creates scenarios where cars won’t make way for the trucks, kids run into traffic, or vehicles rush from blind alleys.

Sage monitors my progress from the auxiliary computer. The computer program spits out data on my driving. It records if — okay, when — I make a mistake, and it tracks my progress through its obstacle course.

“Why are there bodies on the sidewalk?” I ask.

“You just drove past the fire,” Sage says.

Someone calls for me to pull a U-turn.

“No. You can’t do a U-ey; it’s not allowed,” Bucossi says. “Drive around the block.”

To someone else, he says, “It’s been four minutes. She hasn’t hit anything yet?”

Four minutes without a bump is a long time in the simulated emergency world.

I pull the “firetruck” back around the corner. Computer-generated smoke rises from multi-story buildings.

How could I have missed a burning building and dead people strewn on the sidewalk?

Cars have stopped outside the building, congesting the scene.

I can’t imagine the steel nerves it must take for emergency responders to drive safely to a scene, knowing the whole time that lives depend on them and every second counts.

“You’re taking too long,” I think, as I turn the wheel to pull the truck alongside the building.

Too fast.

The truck jumps the sidewalk to a chorus of Sage and Bucossi calling “Oh, no! There you go! Watch the building.”

I swing the wheel to the left, slamming the brakes.

After my run in the simulator, Sage reads out the data that auxiliary computer gathered on my firetruck-driving around Central Computer City.

“You collided with one building, some parking meters, and a car,” he says.

“But you missed the school kids and the SUV that ran the light. Everyone else today hit those two.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #141 (Wednesday, February 29, 2012).

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