Virtual training approaches reality
By Doug Page
Since decisions made, or not made, during the first 30 to 60 minutes of a major incident are crucial to the overall outcome, first responders need better training to learn how to effectively respond to mass-casualty events. Conventional emergency preparedness training methods, however, fall far short.
A 2002 report by the Federation of American Scientists, “Training Technology against Terror: Using Advanced Technology to Prepare America’s Emergency Medical Personnel and First Responders for a Weapon of Mass Destruction Attack,” found that books, workplace training sessions, off-site seminars and other traditional methods aren’t up to the task. FAS noted that the United States must train 1.7 million full-time and volunteer firefighters, 2.7 million nurses, 620,000 civilian law enforcement officers, 150,000 EMTs, 32,000 emergency physicians, 50,000 Army medics, plus millions of other medical personnel and local officials of different backgrounds. Since that national need can’t be met anytime soon without vastly improved training methods and tools, the study recommended that customary training be enhanced with advanced instructional technologies, such as modeling and simulation systems.
“Conventional exercises are costly and require a fairly long lead-time to set up,” says Russ Hauck, executive director of the National Center for Simulation.
Given the heavy reliance on face-to-face, classroom delivery, the maximum amount of training and exercises that can realistically be delivered is much lower than the demand. In addition to expense and resource requirements, live disaster exercises are disruptive and can have an unsettling effect on the community.
“First responder agencies require a broader array of training and exercise options, covering a much wider choice of costs, staffing levels and resources,” Hauck says.
“Computer-generated, or virtual, disaster simulation systems offer users this flexibility.”
Simulations can be conducted for selected groups on a regular basis, meaning that training can be more frequent and can be tailored to more specific training needs.
“Advanced training simulators are needed that can be used to prepare emergency managers for a range of potential disasters, including hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, power blackouts, chemical plant fires and terror attack,” says Charles McLean, leader of the Manufacturing Simulation Modeling Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Back to school
The recent hurricane swarm has helped to drive disaster management toward the advantages that training simulations offer.
“You only have to look at the debacle of Hurricane Katrina to see that computational simulation, not the kinds of training exercises that have been standard repertoire for emergency management agencies, can be a very important alternative for dealing with the kinds of catastrophic disasters that ordinary managers find difficult to conceive of,” says Louise Comfort, principal investigator at the University of Pittsburgh’s Interactive, Intelligent, Spatial Information System (iisis) Laboratory.
Comfort sees the field of disaster simulation moving more and more toward inter-organizational, inter-jurisdictional, inter-disciplinary designs of both training and simulation. “The field is evolving toward organizational simulation that will be able to identify where the strengths and weaknesses are and allow people to anticipate where they need to place limited resources.”
Comfort leads a University of Pittsburgh effort that produced a prototype decision-support system that adapts advanced information technologies to support increased coordination among multiple organizations at different jurisdictional levels engaged in risk reduction and response operations.
“I've been tugging at shirt sleeves for the last 10 years saying, ‘Look, we’ve got this tool, pay attention,’ but no one’s very interested,” Comfort says.
Instead, she says, first responders seem to want to do the same kind of tabletop exercises they always have. “But that’s too expensive, plus you literally can’t imagine region-wide catastrophic, five-state disasters like we saw in the hurricanes. You can only do that with computational simulation.”
The prototype iisis links three types of information technologies to create an event-specific knowledge base that provides real-time information to incident managers as conditions change. The three technologies are:
- Interactive communication via both Internet and secure intranet networks.
- GIS and remote-sensing imagery to provide graphic representation of changes in the area.
- Intelligent reasoning by the computer to provide estimates of known losses or probabilities of likely consequences that could result from the event, such as fires following accidents, failures in transportation networks, hazardous materials releases, or public health needs.
“The critical issue in emergency management is local information,” Comfort says. “Most commercial software programs don’t include local information. You buy a $20,000 package, then find out you have to collect, clean and enter your own data,” she says. (Click here for the IISIS prototype.)
Economics is one of the main drivers behind the move to disaster event simulation. Training frequency can be increased through simulation technology at a much lower cost than conventional training.
“We can’t afford to keep sending firefighters to state fire academies for training. We need to bring the training to the firefighter,” says Ron Coleman, former California state fire marshal and past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
One way to do this is through local high-tech training centers, although Coleman estimates that fewer than 10–15% of fire departments are equipped for computer simulation. Phoenix, with its state-of-the-art Command Training Center, is an exception. Their CTC trains firefighters how to respond to large-scale incidents without ever putting on a set of turnouts.
“We run over 750 command officers from 22 fire departments in the area through here three or four times a year,” says CTC project manager Don Abbott.
The center, set up in an old fire station to avoid rent overhead, provides interactive simulations of fire and police incidents through computer programs and three-dimensional models.
Technological advances in computing and communications infrastructures are converging to produce changes in the way emergency training is offered. More-powerful PCS and handhelds are enabling the generation of graphical environments previously possible only on massive supercomputers.
“When combined with improving network technology, we will soon be able to conduct live exercises in photo-realistic representations of real locations at a minuscule cost,” says K.C. Aly, executive vice president, Reality Response, a division of Advanced Interactive Systems, Seattle.
Simulations support adaptive learning by placing the learner in an environment and allowing them to learn in context. They also supplement traditional training methods by providing challenges and experiences that closely approximate complex situations in the field where trainees must think in real time.
Some virtual reality environment (VRE) systems in which users wear special headgear can induce a ‘real’ experience.
“If I can create a virtual training environment in which somebody actually breaks into a sweat in a vre, in which a person can actually feel heat, then I'm giving them what I call ‘sensorience’, or sensory experience,” says Coleman. He has been working with the Wilson (N.C.)
Fire Department for the past two years developing a virtual reality training program, which so far has converted 19 actual buildings into virtual environments.
Currently, there is an increased focus on developing simulations that are more mobile in nature. Simulations are now being deployed on embedded systems or through the Department of Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning initiative to provide training anytime, anywhere.
Some experts believe disaster preparedness training will soon reflect the military trends of developing smarter training solutions that include components such as simulations, intelligent tutoring systems, distributed subject-matter experts, learning management systems and an array of support tools to ensure learner-centric systems.
“As the DOD takes on a larger role in domestic preparedness and response, we can expect that military training and exercise systems and capabilities will also be extended across the civilian response community,” Hauck says.
Anteon International, Fairfax, Va., is one firm that’s already leveraging its expertise in military simulation training technology in training civilian first responders. Even more realistic replication is on the civilian horizon.
“Over the next five years, we’ll be able to refine our mapping capabilities and develop a process to quickly replicate the terrain, facilities or structures within a community,” says Anteon senior vice president Larry Retta.
The future is now
Future disaster preparedness simulations will most likely focus on increased interoperability.
McLean sees the disaster simulation field moving away from the single-vendor, single-simulator model. “Currently, a single vendor is usually involved in the development of an individual planning and training simulator, but in our vision, multiple simulators must be customized and integrated to address the issues and data existing in each region.”
The current need for custom configurations and development of data translators makes widespread deployment of simulators cost-prohibitive. NIST is at work analyzing existing commercial and research simulators, observing various training exercises across the country, and collaborating with simulation module developers.
(See Modeling and Simulation for Emergency Response: Workshop Report, Standards and Tools, PDF, NISTir, December 2003.)
If the NIST vision is to be realized, simulation developers will have to leap their proprietary barriers and agree to industry-wide interoperability standards.
“It is critical that national standards be developed within the next five years to enable the software industry to develop interoperable component modules for training simulators,” McLean says. Simulation training modules could then be procured locally and assembled into systems designed to meet local needs.
“It is fully reasonable to expect to see integrated simulation and game-based training within 10 years, if the foundation is established in the next five years,” McLean says.
There is little movement in that direction, however. Funding priorities have been elsewhere, which helps explain the lack of growth in simulation adoption.
“End-user growth is small because the software is not currently available,” McLean says. Customers today can’t go out and buy modules that can be plugged together to conduct training.
“Users must be to be able to buy into the technology a little bit at a time and not be afraid that prior investments will be wasted,” he says. Which means that before there will be more spending in this area, there needs to be some interoperability between vendor products and stability.