Using Virtual Worlds to Plan for Real World Challenges

Immersive training simulation software has been used for decades, most notably in the military and commercial airline sectors. By using state-of-the-art hardware- and software-enabled “virtual” environments, pilots can train for almost every operational situation they are likely to encounter, ranging from instrument-only landings to major equipment failures. NASA’s use of high-tech simulated environments in astronaut training has been a legendary success and was limited only by the imagination of the trainers and engineers who created a never-ending stream of “worst case” scenarios for which U.S. astronauts have had to prepare.

There have been other outstanding success stories, in the same field, that cumulatively prove the value of this type of training and, not incidentally, have been validated by the successful resolution of a broad spectrum of real-world incidents. A distinction must be made, though – namely, that, although simulators have a long and successful history in training individuals, a somewhat different type of virtual world must be used to simultaneously train the groups that make up a team. Group training would be particularly useful, in fact, to prepare a large number of first responders – representing a broad spectrum of agencies and disciplines – for working together when a major incident occurs.

Typically, interactive training for first responders involves scripted real-world exercises that include numerous volunteers playing, for example, the role of “victims” of a mass-casualty event. These exercises can be invaluable in testing response procedures, improving role clarity, and enhancing multi-agency coordination. However, such exercises also can be very costly. Moreover, they usually require months of planning, the use of heavy equipment, and close coordination not only among participants but the general public as well. Also, because the damaging of real property is frequently involved, the expenses can add up quickly.

Two additional problems that must be taken into account are: (a) the fact that such training often poses a danger – to trainees and volunteers alike; and (b) that many and probably most exercises usually train only a fraction of a participating agency’s response personnel at a time.

Three-Dimensional Environments & Unscripted Scenarios

Fortunately, the development and introduction of multiplayer online “gaming” provides a useful model for creating “virtual world” incidents that can serve as excellent training platforms. Companies such as the Environmental Tectonics Corporation, for example, have built upon their expertise in training pilots to create an “Advanced Disaster Management Simulator” – which is designed specifically for incident management training and is particularly useful for incident commanders. By creating three-dimensional environments, realistic in appearance, groups of trainees can practice their responses to natural or manmade disasters, in real time, through the use of open-ended, unscripted scenarios.

One of the principal advantages provided by the Environmental Tectonics system is that training simulations can be “replayed” afterward: (a) to review the successes achieved, and/or failures suffered, during a given session; and (b) to collect feedback from participants. The same scenarios can be tested repeatedly at any time, with additional agency participants involved, thereby creating – when compared to a traditional real-world exercise – a more cost-effective, and sustainable, training model.

The University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Lab (CATT Lab) has developed a multiplayer gaming interface designed specifically to train first responders representing multiple disciplines. By using the UM system, which is focused on a “first-person” perspective and is accessible from any computer, participants can move around the virtual world independently, interacting with other participants – including virtual victims – at their discretion.

Moreover, the users are – like those involved in multiplayer online gaming – geospatially aware of their individual locations within the virtual environment and can communicate with one another by using live audio based on their own location compared to the locations of the other users. If one user is not “physically” close to another participant in the virtual world, he or she cannot hear that other person during the simulation. Communication via simulated radio is also available in the virtual environment – but can be deliberately “disabled” during an exercise to simulate a loss of communications in the real world.

Simulation: It’s the Real Thing! The CATT Lab system also incorporates other virtual components that mimic real-world scenarios. For example, during an incident involving a roadway, simulated traffic will start to back up, creating a situation that requires action from the appropriate responders. In addition – thanks to an artificial intelligence engine built into the program – fire, liquid spills, and gases all spread in the same way they would in real life. The solution allows participants to easily change roles, giving a police officer the ability, for example, to serve as a firefighter during a specifically designated scenario.

These and similar types of exercises can not only improve situational awareness among participants but also create a greater appreciation of the roles and responsibilities of responders representing other disciplines. Another design feature allows completed scenarios to be replayed from different viewing angles for each responder, giving assessors a more complete picture of each participant’s role in the exercise.

Although a missing element in simulation-based training is a true, real-world test of physical equipment – and is not, therefore, a substitute for training on specific apparatus – the use of multiplayer virtual environments provides enormous benefits to first responders and command staff alike. When the next generation of responders – most of whom are already familiar with the intricacies of multiplayer gaming systems – enters the emergency management field, the use of this innovative technology is likely to become even more valuable.


For additional information on the UMD CATT Lab solution, click on

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.



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