Simulations train firefighters with blaze but no burn

An advanced computer simulation program is under development at a government research agency to let firefighters-in-training respond to a blaze without the risk of burns.

National Institute of Standards and Technology scientists are at work converting years-old fire modeling software, Fire Dynamic Simulator, and fire imaging software called Smokeview to display more quickly and realistically the smoke, hot air and other gases that erupt from fires and wind.

They envision a virtual reality setup, where firefighters would wear head gear that would display in 3-D the fire and smoke images originating from an SGI computer and playing out on two eight-foot screens.

'This is kind of a poor man's holodeck,' said Glenn Forney, a computer scientist at NIST's Building and Fire Research Laboratory, referring to the virtual reality environment in 'Star Trek.'

While that scenario is still three to four years in development, Forney said, the NIST team hopes to give firefighters CDs loaded with intuitive, simulated role-playing software for computer training as early as next year.

'Someone asked me, 'Could you make your software more compatible with [video games] Quake and Doom?'' Forney said. 'So that's what I did. I made some keystrokes similar to what computer gamers were expecting.'

Through the visualization upgrades, the software package will be able to render extremely complex, multistory fires, as well as scenarios of potential outcomes of a firefighter's decision, from opening a window to pointing a hose in a certain direction.

For instance, for depicting smoke beyond the 2-D swirl graphics, NIST scientists have been investigating using parallel precomputed planes of different shades. The graphics hardware would then combine those planes to form one image in less than a second'a process that can create file sizes of more than 2-G.

Forney said his team is working with firefighter instructors from the National Fire Academy to come up with scenarios, but the accuracy of the fire's behavior will be based on physics. He said programs like this could minimize the training deaths of firefighters that occur each year.

'The images are based on science. They're not going to be cartoons,' he said. 'The thickness of smoke and where the fire will be located will be based on what the physical equations say they should be.'

NIST has used the open-source FDS since 1999 to investigate computer simulations of fatal fires from the District of Columbia to Iowa, down to the World Trade Center fires from the terrorist attacks two years ago today.

Smokeview, whose fourth version was released in April, is written mostly in C and partially in Fortran 90, and can run on several platforms, including Microsoft Windows, Linux and Unix.


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