Fire investigation enters new dimension

Frontline officers throughout West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) are set to receive state-of-the-art virtual reality (VR) training in fire investigation.



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Published on 27 October 2020

Frontline officers throughout West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) are set to receive state-of-the-art virtual reality (VR) training in fire investigation.

WMFS is believed to be the first Fire and Rescue Service in the country to roll out the bespoke VR sessions to Watch Officers. 
The system – developed by Warwickshire company RiVR – immerses trainees in scenarios which allow them to explore and interact with the scenes of fires in domestic and commercial settings. 

Wearing a VR headset and holding two controllers, they can enter and walk around rooms, pick up objects, take notes digitally, take photos and transfer items to a reconstruction area or a laboratory for tests and further examination.

The technology will help to develop Watch and Crew Commanders in investigating the accidental or deliberate origin and cause of fires, as well as identifying signs of heat damage, fire spread and criminal activity. 

The training will also assist the officers at the scenes of actual incidents when deciding whether to request more specialist support from our Fire Investigation and Prevention Section (FIPS). Watch Commander Jason Dean, of WMFS FIPS, said: “We will be rolling out this training to officers drawn from across the service. It will enable us to provide bespoke, incredibly realistic training in a safe environment. 

“Investigators from our Fire Investigation and Prevention Section will guide trainees through the scenarios, viewing their progress in real-time on a computer screen. 

“The VR programme will help us to train more colleagues more quickly. It will also be more cost-effective than our current process, which involves setting up one-burn-only fire scenes.” 

The VR package currently offers six training scenarios, for which actual fires were started and extinguished in specially-created room settings, including a lounge, kitchen and office. 

The post-burn scenes were then captured in 360-degree reality, using thousands of photographs, laser technology and 3D modelling. A virtual tool belt gives users access to evidence markers, a torch, camera, voice note recorder, gas testing device and portable lighting. Alex Harvey, the co-founder of RiVR, said: “It is so exciting seeing West Midlands Fire Service getting value from this photo-realistic virtual training. An important development is that trainees can now be at one location but connected to others via the web, enabling them to pass items and talk to each other ‘inside’ VR. 

“Moving into 2021, we are releasing another six scenarios giving a much broader range of training.” 

The system will also be used to help FIPS Officers gain an ISO accreditation to conduct fire-related crime scene examinations on behalf of the police. 

Earlier this year, WMFS’s Fire Investigation and Prevention Section were awarded an Outstanding Accomplishment award by the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI). The section is a member of both the IAAI and the UK association, for which it regularly delivers training events. 

Established 36 years ago, WMFS FIPS were the first dedicated fire investigation team in the UK. They also work closely with several partner agencies, including police and forensics teams, Coroners’ officers, hospitals and universities.