For industrial responders, the closest thing to fighting a real fire is a live-fire training exercise using a full-scale mockup of a plant or refinery unit. But what do those same responders do for reality when the training is about hazardous materials?

Safely shutting off the flames is as simple as turning a valve. The same cannot be said for toxic or flammable vapors. And without using the real thing the hand-held meters that responders depend on have nothing to activate a reading. The only substitute is having someone shout out fictional readings from the sidelines, an exercise as realistic as a free lunch.

The BP North American Research Center in Naperville, IL, provides its hazmat responders an extra degree of authenticity by means of an innovative computer simulation known as HazSim®, a training tool invented by an active duty first responder, said BP Life Safety Specialist Daniel Graunke.

 “It’s a computer-based system that allows you to walk around with a device that is similar to a monitor,” he said. “The device provides the same readouts as our hand-held detectors. Using signals from a computer which is remotely controlling the HazSim® training device, the instructor running the training exercise can change those readouts accordingly, truly simulating what could easily be a real situation.”

If the training scenario involves a low oxygen environment, the instructor can adjust the readings that the responders are working from to indicate low oxygen. Likewise, the hand-held monitor can issue real time information indicating a high concentration of carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide or any number of other threats.

BP’s Naperville responders were introduced to the HazSim® system last June by instructor Greg Lauf of All Risk Training and Safety, Inc. By November, the research center purchased HazSim® to use as a full-time training tool of its own.

HazSim® allows responders to train with equipment that is very close to what would be used in real life without risking exposure to dangerous agents, Graunke said.

 “It’s a very good system to give proper instruction on the use of metering equipment,” he said. “It’s difficult to use the real metering equipment and actually perform an exercise or drill without using the actual products that you’re looking for.”

Lauf said HazSim® gives an instructor the ability to fine tune a training scenario to simulate any situation.

 “I control the exercise from a tablet computer,” Lauf said. “As the participants move down range, I can manipulate the readings by means of a Local Area Network. If they go too far, I can simulate readings to indicate they are walking past the threat. Or, if the vapor density is low to the ground and they’re not monitoring correctly, I can simulate that as well.”

 Lauf remains close enough to control the situation but far enough away to not directly interfere with the responders’ tactics or interpretations. The number of training scenarios possible is endless, he said.

 “The meter has about 20 different configurations,” Lauf said. “It can be used as a single gas meter for something like chlorine or expanded to a standard four gas meter. I can even make it into a radiation detector. It can be customized to just about any meter configuration possible.”

Before HazSim®, Lauf was forced to post the readings on sheets of papers along the course of the simulation. Being that close to the action made it difficult not to coach the responders.

 “I would be in the hot zone with them, which is not realistic,” Lauf said. “They would be looking at the meter in their hand that said zero and the sign that said ‘5 ppm H2S.’”

Likewise, when attempting to train using a real meter that registers a safe oxygen content of 21 percent when the training scenario involves oxygen deprivation is a far step from authenticity and easily distracts the trainees.

“Your brain is not clicking right because you’re seeing one thing and being told another,” Lauf said.

As a substitute for direct intervention, the instructor can send questions to the responders via the HazSim® device itself.

Having a HazSim® system permanently available for use in Naperville is a vast improvement in training, Lauf said. Otherwise, the availability of the system would be limited to twice a year.

“Graunke sees a real value in HazSim as a training tool,” Lauf said. “Having it on hand year round makes it available to their manufacturing personnel as well.”