Fairfax County's Mobile Training Unit Brings Lifesaving Skills for Those on the Go

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

From the outside, it looks like a gigantic, windowless bus. But inside, Fairfax County has built a high-tech training laboratory for firefighters and paramedics that didn't cost taxpayers a cent, will save the county time and money and is likely to save lives.

The mobile training unit has a classroom where up to 10 firefighters or paramedics can learn the latest techniques in emergency medical services, which can be crucial when they are the first on the scene of a car crash or medical episode. Portable devices, including life-size heads, allow the "students" to get hands-on training inside the bus.

In the back of the bus is the real star: "Sim Man," a full-size male dummy that can be controlled remotely to teach paramedics different skills and test them.

"Just about everything you can do with a regular person, you can do with this," said Capt. Richard Yuras, program manager for emergency medical services for the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department.

Sim Man was developed by the U.S. Army. His eyes blink, and his pupils dilate and contract according to whether he's getting the right dose of medication or treatment, Yuras said. He has functioning lungs that can be listened to or compressed. The heart can produce a variety of sounds and rhythms, all the way to congestive heart failure, to give paramedics practice in dealing with cardiac emergencies.

In Sim Man's right arm is a part for intravenous fluids, and the mannequin will react appropriately if he gets too much, or not enough, of the necessary fluid, Yuras said. There are six points on his body to check for a pulse and blood pressure. From his mouth, which includes a full set of teeth, a remote operator can speak to students and tell them what's going on with Sim Man.

Cameras in the bus allow others to watch as Sim Man is resuscitated. Operators can also introduce ambient noise, such as the sirens and rumble of an ambulance, to reproduce the frenzied working conditions during an emergency.

Firefighters and paramedics are always training, improving their lifesaving skills. Now the training comes to them, and in a more helpful, hands-on way.

"This is more instructive," said Lt. Thomas Connolly, who runs some training sessions and drives the bus, "as opposed to an antiseptic classroom. And they're getting a lot done in a lot quicker time."

A bonus is that the bus goes to fire stations, where firefighters can do training without leaving their stations and their trucks. In the past, firefighters drove their engines to the training academy, leaving their stations empty for hours and making them unavailable for calls. Now, if a call comes in, the training session stops and the firefighters make their run.

Fairfax and Yuras have been working on the mobile training unit since 2003, looking at different ways of transporting trainers and equipment around the 400-square-mile county. Some jurisdictions use a tractor-trailer, or tow a trailer, but few have a self-contained unit with a classroom, Yuras said.

"I don't know of any other fire departments that have a similar program like this," Yuras said.

The bus was funded entirely by $435,000 in state grants, accrued over six years. The bus, which had to be specially built to handle the classroom and equipment, cost $325,000 and the equipment $110,000. The grant money came from a $4 fee included in every vehicle registration in Virginia, which is specifically allocated for emergency medical training.

The bus made its debut June 15. Yuras said its trainers are trying to conduct four or five classes per day. The bus will be rolled out for selected community demonstrations.

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