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20120214_MFD_Simulator_dy_009MFD trains with virtual simulation

MISSION — The sirens whaled as the fire engine slowed to a crawl shimmying through a congested city street Tuesday afternoon. Aside from police and other first responders at the scene, traffic was at a complete stop when Mission Fire Department Capt. Conrad Martinez III maneuvered inches away from a parked car. He peered through his windows when he heard a crash.

“I clipped it,” Martinez said as he continued driving to the scene of an accident. “I took that mirror.”

The sound of the impact reverberated through the cabin as he continued to his destination.

Martinez’s drive was one of many virtual exercises given to drivers at the Mission Fire Department this week. Making its first appearance in the Rio Grande Valley, an 18-wheeler mobile training facility trained firefighters in a risk-free environment to train for all types of scenarios drivers may encounter when responding to a call. Those scenarios include weather issues rain, sleet, snow, high winds and street scenarios like vehicles cutting in front of a fire engine or a tire blowout while driving at a high rate of speed.

“This puts them out of their comfort zone,” said Martinez, the department’s training coordinator. “We want them to always be prepared, and this gives our new drivers the chance to feel what it is like to drive. They get experience without putting them behind the wheel.”

The mobile training center, which was brought here by the Texas Education Extension Service through Texas A&M University, is a lot like an arcade driving game. Motorists face three different screens that show them their side rearview mirrors and every detail a typical fire engine would have.

“It forces you to be a better driver,” Martinez said.

According to TEEX, driving accidents are the second highest cause of death for firefighters.

“It’s an eye opener,” explained Martinez, who had requested the training device about a year ago. “You sometimes don’t realize how comfortable you are and this is serious stuff.”

Each scenario lasts about five minutes and the TEEX operators are able to watch on a different computer what each driver is doing. There’s also a video camera recording the driver to allow trainers to determine if the driver is checking their mirrors, said Darren Smith.

“The computer gives me a 360-degree angle around the truck,” Smith said.

The software will also record the driver’s speed and any violations they may have made while driving.

The truck and software for the simulation costs around $300,000 and is funded through the state, Smith said.

While drivers can be tested on a dozen different scenarios, Martinez said the department wants to make sure drivers are using techniques stressed in class, such as three-point turn.

The city has 15 full-time drivers with 15 acting drivers who have enjoyed the new training session. While the simulation lacks the physical aspects of feeling how a truck can get out of control when a tire is blown out or when the truck hits a pothole, the sounds and visuals on the screen are helpful teaching tools.

Without the virtual simulation, driving training consists of gradual development, which can be a longer process, Martinez said.

“We’re doing everything we can to educate drivers to be prepared for calls,” he explained. “We teach our guys to be cautious.”

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