UniSA researchers have joined forces with the SA Country Fire Service (CFS) to give residents a searing experience of a bushfire – all from the safety of a virtual reality headset.
Residents in Tea Tree Gully, Belair, Mylor, Hahndorf and Gawler have had the chance to experience a computer-generated major bushfire through a virtual reality headset, replicating real-life conditions minus the heat.
Developed by UniSA PhD student Safa Molan and her supervisor Associate Professor Delene Weber in conjunction with the CFS, officials hope the virtual reality scenario – an Australian first – will remind residents of the need to prepare bushfire survival plans ahead of a potentially lethal summer.
The fire danger season for the Mount Lofty Ranges and metropolitan fire ban districts has been brought forward by two weeks to 17 November because of a drier than average winter and increased temperatures through spring.
“The virtual reality scenario replicates typical conditions experienced in a major fire, including strong, changeable winds fanning the flames,” says Assoc Prof Weber, an environmental scientist in UniSA’s School of Natural and Built Environments.
“It puts users under pressure to decide whether to leave their homes early or stay and defend – in essence, what a bushfire survival plan is designed to do.
“The scenario is realistic but safe and underlines the importance of being prepared in the event of a major fire. Too often people think they will ‘leave early’ but then delay their departure, making evacuation more dangerous, or not feasible.
And while some people did stay and defend their properties during the 2015 fires, they told UniSA researchers that although they were physically prepared, the emotional experience of the fire was devastating.
“We often fail to recognise that the impacts of an experience with fire extend well beyond the incident itself,” Assoc Prof Weber says. “This virtual reality scenario allows people to experience what the consequences may be like if they do stay and defend. For some people this might encourage them to rethink their plans.”
Virtual reality headsets are now being used by several emergency service groups to train their own staff, but involving the public is an Australian first.
The scenario builds on research conducted as part of a joint UniSA and University of Adelaide Australian Research Council grant.
Researchers found people’s knowledge of fire as a natural part of the Australian ecosystem was relatively high, as was their acceptance of prescribed burns. However, it was clear that many people hadn’t got around to making a bushfire survival plan, or they “had it in their head”.
The 15-minute virtual reality scenario shows people the types of decisions that need to be made as a fire approaches and ultimately, hopefully encourages people to sit down and make a bushfire survival plan.
Assoc Prof Weber urges residents to visit the CFS website (cfs.sa.gov.au) for a step-by-step guide to help them prepare a bushfire survival plan.
UniSA researchers and the CFS will use the feedback from the virtual reality scenario to better understand how different people react in a fire.
PhD researcher Safa Molan says that they also hope to develop different scenarios, including one for children, and one for people holidaying in fire-prone areas.
CFS Bushfire Safety Project Manager Peta Donohue says she is looking forward to seeing the results to find out if VR can provide genuine changes in behaviour.
“We learned from community research and experiences at Sampson Flat that some people were physically prepared for the fire, but not emotionally. We need to find ways for people to practice their bushfire survival plans without putting them at risk,” she says.
Adelaide Hills residents had the chance to try out the technology at a series of locations in November, organised by the CFS and UniSA. But people who are interested can also register to attend a scheduled appointment at UniSA’s Mawson Lakes campus until 19 December by contacting Safa Molan.
UniSA, the SA Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, are hoping to spearhead new research designed to give firefighters the best chance to stay, safe, fit and effective on the job.
The new partnership will support an industry-based PhD scholarship to investigate firefighters, as occupational athletes, and develop a range of tools so that they can monitor and evaluate their fitness throughout their careers.
UniSA’s leading exercise and sports scientist, Professor Kevin Norton, says firefighting has some of the most stringent entry fitness criteria of any career, but no strong framework for maintaining relevant fitness for the work involved.
“But research shows that fitness and preparedness in one activity, doesn’t guarantee a person is ready for a different set of physical challenges.
“What the MFS has recognised is the importance of working with firefighters on the ground, to uncover the evidence for a strength and fitness regime appropriate for the demands of the job.
“The ultimate goal will be to develop a framework that supports better outcomes for firefighters and ensures they have a training regime that will help them to operate safely in the often extreme and physically taxing emergency services environment.”
The $122,500 scholarship will support a PhD candidate for 3.5 years and applications close on 16 November 2018.
MFS Chief Officer Michael Morgan says the partnership represents the first time such industry-focused research has been done in Australia related to firefighter fitness.
“Industry related fitness programs do exist, but through this PhD research we will be framing something that is both evidence-based and designed for and with firefighters, cognisant of the challenges of shift work, and of the physical demands of firefighting,” Morgan says.
“In developing a relevant strength and fitness training map we hope to give firefighters some tools to support greater health and safety and fewer on the job injuries.”
More information about this industry research scholarship opportunity is available online.