Retired fire captain paramedic Larry Thacker recalls his training from years ago:
“This is very laughable. We had an overhead projector. We would lay down a slide on there with a picture of a building and someone would put on a colored wheel and rotate it slowly. It would give a crude image of fire. If we wanted it to look like it was spreading more, we would brush sand across it,” Thacker says.
The training available at a virtual incident command center being built in downtown Mesa is “a leap into the future from those days,” he says.
Thacker is now dean of instruction for career and technical programs at Mesa Community College, where he’s worked for the past 25 years.
In 2004, voters approved a Maricopa County Community College District bond that included funds for regional fire service training. Those dollars are being used to build the $2.1 million training facility that will open to students and municipal fire departments from across the state and Southwest early next year.
The 3,500-square-foot facility will create a simulated emergency environment. Through computer and video images, emergency responders will be drilled on everything from fires and national disasters to terrorist attacks.
Crews recently lifted a fire truck cab and a Ford F-150 truck into the center, located on the fourth floor of MCC’s building at 145 N. Centennial Way in Mesa. Work is being done to complete a command van for the facility.
During training sessions, responders will sit in any of the various vehicles or in small rooms around the floor. From their locations, they will see only the images based on the vantage point they’re being trained in during the exercises.
“So they are feeding all this information to the people in the command van. That person is having to make decisions based on all this tremendous amount of information coming into them. Computers in there will provide information coming from poison control, or hazardous centers from throughout nation,” Thacker said. “That’s what this is for, to simulate the stresses those people are under, the huge amount of data coming in and having to make life and death decisions.”
Instructors and other trainees will be able to watch and hear everything going on from an adjacent classroom. Training sessions will also be recorded for review.
The software being created for the facility will allow fire crews to feel like they are in scenarios in their own communities. If the Payson Fire Department is in training, members will see images of buildings located in Payson.
As more experienced fire department leaders prepare to retire, it’s creating a “vacuum” across the country, Thacker said. Younger firefighters are being asked to take on leadership roles sooner. They may lack the years of hands-on experience their mentors could have given them.
“This is a skill needed by all emergency responders, especially since the events of 9/11,” Thacker said. “We recognize the need to have more and more training in the major events like this. Everyone has attempted to have an answer to this, but we have come up with the most sophisticated simulation facility of its kind.”
Mesa Assistant Fire Chief Mary Cameli said the center will help make her department “that much better in the field.”
Training now takes place in a classroom setting, so the virtual command center will provide a step up from that.
“Anytime you can make training as realistic as possible, it’s better for everybody,” she said.
Like Thacker, Cameli sees the changes going on with the fire department.
“A lot of institutional knowledge is going as the older members are retiring. We have a lot of new chief officers in these ranks now. The more training we can provide is better for them as well,” she said.