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ETC Simulation enhances virtual reality to train first responders

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The ADMS system for emergency management training allows agencies to forego costly, complex and potentially dangerous real-life training exercises for one that's done on the big screen.

WASHINGTON – Once in a while, I hear about real-life emergency training exercises. They require months of preparation and planning, utilize scores of people and countless pieces of heavy machinery, can pose a potential risk for those involved and seem to cost a small fortune. Doesn’t simulation training seem like a no-brainer?

Last week, Environmental Tectonics Corporation (ETC) Simulation hosted a demonstration of its high-definition Advanced Disaster Management Simulator (ADMS) here, leading up to the Annual Capitol Hill Modeling and Simulation Caucus. I stopped by for a primer in simulation-based training.

Orlando-based ETC Simulation first introduced ADMS in 1994. But the interactive virtual reality system is very different—and much more believable--today. The system trains incident commanders and disaster management teams at all levels, from a director to a medical responder to a public information officer. The ADMS package includes 10 emergency scenarios—such as a chemical spill, airplane crash and fire, natural disaster and terrorism incident. And each experience is unscripted, which means the development, escalation or resolution of each scenario is solely determined by the trainees’ decisions.

A number of agencies and organizations already understand the benefits of simulation. ADMS clients include the U.S. Air Force (Goodfellow Air Force Base), New York City Office of Emergency Management, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the South Korea National Fire Safety Academy and the Netherlands National Institute for Safety.

When I walked into the ADMS demonstration room, there were three 92-inch adjacent screens, and separate large screens in other areas of the room. On the three screens, I saw a disaster unfolding: a tanker truck from which some chemical was spilling; traffic congestion; casualties. First responders were scattered throughout the animated scene, looking very real. One of them, in a moment of down time, stopped to stretch his neck from side to side.

“The whole idea is the make the simulation more realistic, whether it’s the way the first responders move or the way the bystanders react, ” said Seth Foster, ADMS’s Vice President, North America. “The more details, the more the trainees can suspend disbelief, and retention is higher. They’re really experiencing it.”

He said even the K-9 staff is more believable—when the dogs are sitting around, one might scratch himself instead of sitting like a statue. “It’s something you wouldn’t notice, but the subconscious knows it’s more believable,” he said.

The more believable the graphics, the more realistic the story and the training, Foster said. “We start with training objectives and from there, we bring the story to life. The goal: Make people better at saving lives.”

As developments unfold in the “story,” trainees talk to each other on walkie-talkies (some would be in separate areas of the room experiencing the disaster from a different perspective, based on their training objectives).

A facilitator on a laptop in the back of the room can manipulate the environment, adding new challenges. A drop-down menu allows the facilitator to change the wind speed, cloud cover, precipitation or time of day. A simple click to change wind direction could run havoc with smoke from a fire (or a cloud with radioactive material); fog could impair visibility and worsen traffic; precipitation could make it more challenging to deal with causalities.

Or the facilitator could inject a roof collapse, explosion or a phone call from, say, Channel 7 News, which wants to do an interview. The trainees have to decide how to respond to each factor (the correct answer to Channel 7 is that they have to contact the public information officer). Or the injection could be something like a secondary device—say there was a car behind the tractor trailer that was carrying a bomb designed to go off later and hurt/kill first responders. All of a sudden the trainees are shifting from a simple incident to something significantly more complex.

The coolest thing about ADMS is the system’s artificial intelligence and physics engine. The program knows, for example, how many gallons of water the fire truck carries and the length of the hose. So—just like in real life--if you park your truck too far away from the fire, the hose won’t reach its target.

It also knows--if a truck is carrying a hazardous liquid or gas--how far and how quickly it will spread after an accident, and how it will follow the terrain. It knows how traffic affects deployment of emergency vehicles and how fires spread of they’re not attacked. If first responders fail to manage traffic, cars in the scenario will continue to drive through the disaster area. If they don’t set up triage, people will die.

And from a training standpoint, perhaps the most valuable aspect of ADMS, compared to real-life training exercises, is that the situation is repeatable and reviewable. After trainees have spent several hours on a scenario, they can play it back from any vantage point and debrief, talking about why decisions were made and the consequences. (Did they evacuate soon enough? Did spending too much time on one victim cause others to die?)

Foster said it’s especially valuable for high-impact, low-frequency events—the kind of things that are difficult to train for. “It’s important to train in a way that increases confidence, skill and knowledge,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, because if people walk into a situation feeling more competent, you are putting them in a better position to save lives.”

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure