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Simulating the fire ground

You learn from every fire. That’s an old adage in the fire service, but there are two problems with that. First, the only people who learned from that fire were the members who fought it.

November 22, 2012 
By John Giggey

You learn from every fire. That’s an old adage in the fire service, but there are two problems with that. First, the only people who learned from that fire were the members who fought it. Second, there are far fewer fires than there used to be. That’s a good thing, but it also means fewer learning opportunities, and that lack of knowledge and experience can show on the fire ground.

Brian Gray, deputy chief of operations, in the control room of the command training simulator at Station 7 of Halifax Regional Fire.
Photo by John Giggey


Brian Gray, deputy chief of operations with Halifax Regional Fire, noticed the problem a few years ago while still a platoon chief on the street: there was no consistency.

“In running promotional routines, sometimes the level of experience in running a fire ground was nowhere near where I thought it should be,” he says. “And there was no consistency in the way we managed fires.


“Like many departments, we used to rely a lot on mentoring – senior officers teaching junior officers. If you were fortunate enough to have a good mentor then you would likely become a good officer. But if you had a poor mentor, well, you’re still going to become like your teacher.”

Gray wanted to bring it all together. “I wanted some predictability as to what I would expect to see as a platoon chief when I come in and take command of a fire after the first incoming crews have arrived and set up.”

He took the idea of an officer-training centre upstairs and secured a budget of $40,000. Then he put together his team: himself, Training Chief (now Division Commander) Chuck Bezanson and Steve Nearing, division chief of communications and technology.

The team was leaning toward a computerized virtual fire simulation system. The Phoenix Fire Department has been a leader in that field, so the team visited the Phoenix command training centre, meeting with project manager Don Abbott (recently retired). The team came back convinced to go with a similar program.

On their return to Halifax, team members began reviewing the software that was available.

As it turns out, training officers Andrew Bednarz and Vince Conrad had become familiar with the 50-hour Blue Card incident command certification program and had already completed it online. When the training officers brought this to the attention of Gray and his team, the decision was made to go with Blue Card.

Blue Card is based on Fire Command, a fire officer training textbook developed by retired Phoenix fire chief Alan Brunacini, and was developed by Brunacini and his sons, John and Nick.

An empty classroom at Station 7, which also includes a large training ground, was refurbished and cubicles were added. Computers and the necessary software were purchased and soon the command training centre was in place – and under budget. Bednarz loaded the system and he remains keeper of the centre, so to speak.

The payoffs started long before the new training program even got off the ground. Just setting up the simulator required inputting specific procedures on how to manage any kind of incident that would be involved in the training. In other words, it needed operating guidelines (OGs).

At that time, the department had many OGs but only a couple that pertained specifically to operations on the fire ground.

“I put together an OG committee and many, if not most, of the OGs we now have came out of this,” says Gray.

As the procedures were entered into the system and used in the simulated fires, an interesting thing happened: it became evident that some of the procedures were not as effective in certain scenarios as they should be. They were changed. It’s not unusual for operating guidelines to be updated or changed after the procedures are applied at a real fire. But now any flaws were being found in simulation, not on the street.

“We weren’t married to our OGs,” says Bezanson, one of the certified Blue Card instructors. “They have to be practical. No one had a problem if a written OG had to be changed.”

The department now has more than 60 operating guidelines, more than one-third directly relating to the fire ground. The OGs cover fires ranging from illicit drug labs to attached garages, and from strip malls and industrial buildings to forest fires. Thanks to the simulator, all of these scenarios were fire-tested without ever seeing an actual fire.

The OGs are a critical part of the officer training program. There are now four certified Blue Card command training instructors: two training officers and two division commanders (previously known as platoon chiefs).

To understand the complexity of bringing all fire officers to the same level of training and knowledge throughout the department, one must appreciate the geography of the City of Halifax.

When Halifax Regional Fire was formed in 1996, it incorporated two cities (Halifax and Dartmouth), four large communities that could best be described as towns, and scores of villages and settlements. Halifax Regional Municipality is spread over about 5,577 square kilometres. Toronto, by comparison, is about 630 square kilometres.

For the fire service, amalgamation basically meant joining two career city fire departments, four career/volunteer town departments, and 32 other departments, most of which were entirely volunteer.

Today the department operates with 57 fire stations staffed by 471 career members and more than 640 volunteers. All members are at least Level 1 certified; they serve a population of 408,000.

With command training, the goal is to ensure a fire in downtown Halifax is fought the same way as a similar fire in outlying areas such as Moser River, 180 kilometres away at the eastern end of the municipality. The training is being taken to the volunteers via a portable command training centre. More officers, possibly including a couple of volunteers, will be trained as instructors.

In Halifax, as in other departments using the system, scenarios are based on the types of incidents that can be expected in the community.

“We had one officer go through a scenario as part of his training,” says Bezanson. “He called me the next day. ‘I just had that exact fire,’ he says. ‘I knew exactly what to do. It was the easiest fire I ever managed.’ ”

The program is not interactive. “There are winners and losers,” says Bezanson. “Some buildings will be lost no matter what. The aim is not to save the building. What’s important is how the incident commander reacts, how he handles it. How does he respond to information from other officers in the cubicles who are playing various roles? Is he following proper procedures, making the right decisions?”

It takes about 120 hours to build a scenario that focuses not just on procedures, but also on crew safety. “We now have drop boxes,” says Bezanson.

“After we build a scenario we drop it on a site that can be accessed by all Blue Card users. All other departments in the world using this system now have access to our scenario, and we have access to what they’ve developed.”

The Blue Card certification is now also part of the promotional routine for career members aspiring to become officers. All career lieutenants, captains and division commanders have been through the course and training is well advanced among volunteer officers.

Training Officer Andrew Bednarz says 249 officers have been enrolled to date and 155 have been Blue Card certified. Another 35 are expected to be certified by the end of 2012. “That’s more than any other department in Canada or the U.S., and the most in the world so far as I know,” he says.

The training so far has had obvious results.

“It’s paying dividends already,” says Gray. “Consistency is evident now in how we are approaching fires throughout the municipality. Fireground chatter has changed. The transfer of command when a chief officer arrives on scene is smoother.”

Because of the portability of the simulator technology, Gray envisions carrying it to another level, such as pre-planning.

An officer doing a pre-plan of a particular building may do more than a walk-through – he/she may make a thorough photographic record of the structure.

That can be used to build a scenario of that building in the simulator. “Now our pre-planning process can be moved into the classroom by creating various events that could happen in that structure.”

Likewise scenarios involving various types of commercial and residential buildings common to the municipality can be created and members can become skilled in fighting fires in those structures.

“I’d like to take this to a level,” says Gray, “that when captains step down from their fire trucks, they may be looking at a building they’ve never seen before and it’s on fire, and yet they’re also looking at a fire they’ve already fought in a virtual sense.”

John Giggey is a retired volunteer captain with Halifax Regional Fire. He works part-time in the department’s public affairs division. He is also a retired journalist, having acted as a supervising editor with the Canadian Press and Broadcast News in Toronto. E-mail him at

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