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Training Through Realistic Simulation

Written by Bill Siuru

Today, there are many ways to train first responders so they are ready to handle any natural or man-made disaster. These range from textbook and classroom training to mock exercises and virtual reality simulations. The Simulation and Training session at the seventh annual Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness Conference and Exposition 2005 provided a good look at simulation training already available or under development. Several of these use e-learning or distance learning so geographically dispersed responders can be trained online without incurring expensive travel costs.

An example of distance learning is the Virtual Incident Command (VIC) simulation system presented by Dan Belk (dan.belk@us.army.mil), War Fighter Protection Lab., Redstone Arsenal. This immersive, three-dimensional simulation lets trainees interact with the virtual environment so they experience realistic consequential outcomes in real-time as a result of their decisions.

The reality of this immersive environment adds a stress factor not typically found in table-top exercises. VIC was developed using both commercial and government off-the-shelf hardware and software. VIC is initially designed to be used in the Center for Domestic Preparedness WMD Incident Command course as the capstone exercise simulating the first three hours of a chemical release event.

VIC has three primary stations. The Virtual Mobile Incident Command Unit’s three video monitors present out-the-window views of Model City. Student responders make decisions based on information delivered via simulated radio traffic, TV news reports, EOC telephone calls, out-the-window scene displays, and live/virtual central dispatch communications.

They do not have to interact directly with a computer or learn a new training system; they simply walk into the environment, pick up a radio, and execute their National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command roles in response to the realistic scenario cues.

The instructor monitors the scenario’s progress and student responses using the Facilitator Station. Optional events can be inserted to help or challenge the trainees.

The third station is the Dispatcher’s Station where the VIC system operator interacts with the scenario to dispatch and log response decisions being radioed in by the Student Responders in the Command Post. VIC emulates tactical dispatching software.

A remote view of the Dispatcher’s data entry screen and map view is available on the laptop inside the Command Post for Situational Awareness. Because the system is managed by a physics- and engineering-based simulation engine, the live decisions the responders make are realistically portrayed. Depending on where the student responders place their Command Post, anything that happens within their line of sight can be viewed in real time on the out-the-window monitor displays.

Barbara Beith (barbara.biehn@dhs.gov), DHS Office for Domestic Preparedness (OPD), presented an overview of the OPD’s simulation and training programs. The details of these offerings can be seen at firstrespondertraining.gov. Many of the courses focus on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)—response to WMD emergencies; WMD radiological and nuclear awareness; WMD crime scene management and recognition, avoidance, isolation and notification techniques in a WMD environment including prevention and deterrence of CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive hazards).

Its Best Practices Lessons Learned series includes peer-validated field experiences collected from emergency response professionals such as medical support to injured riot control officers, monitoring structural stability following a major building collapse, and victim identification and record creation during a mass casualty incident. The Best Practices series including local anti-terrorism information and intelligence sharing and emergency operations planning for hazard vulnerability analysis for healthcare facilities.

Dennis McGrath (dmcgrath@ists.dartmouth.edu) from the Institute for Security Technology at Dartmouth College discussed how game engines developed for entertainment can and are being used for serious training simulations for first responders.

Compared to military engines that have been frequently used for simulations, game engines are often easy to get, easy to use, and easy to afford. They also contain the synthetic environment required for realistic simulations. These artificial representations of reality are typically real-time, distributed multi-user and immersive using the human-in-the-loop.

One example is the Synthetic Environments for Emergency Response Simulation (SEERS) that provides cost-effective mission rehearsal and virtual prototyping tools for the emergency response community. The project, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, is part of the core research program of the Emergency Readiness and Response Research Center (ER3C) at Dartmouth’s Institute for Security Technology Studies.

The SEERS project recognizes that emergency responders benefit from technologies originally developed for military simulations as well as the tremendous advances made by the commercial computer game industry. SEERS researchers have developed several synthetic environments based on game paradigms.

Mike Mercer (mercer2@llnl.gov), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), presented the Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation (JCATS) and Advanced Combat and Tactical Simulation (ACATS). JCATS was developed by the LLNL for the DOD to simulate joint military exercises. ACATS is a more sophisticated version of JCATS. Both have been used for civilian applications.

For instance, JCATS was used for security planning and operational support for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and the U.S. Border Patrol used a version of ACATS. A fundamental difference exists between military and civilian versions. The latter focuses on minimizing casualties, rather than defeating an enemy, through emergency response coordination, evacuation and crowd control.

Less sophisticated conflict simulation programs often represent only aggregate groups of soldiers, weapons and vehicles, and cannot simulate the interactions between individual ones. These entity-based simulations model individual soldiers, vehicles, and weapons, or in the case of civilian simulations, firefighters, hazardous materials experts, ambulances and other equipment.

The largest JCATS exercise to date incorporated more than 40,000 entities. Players control only the specific entities for which they are responsible and can see and react only to objects within their entities’ lines of sight. However, the effects of their actions are shown to all players within view on their side. Players can zoom from a theater of operation to a specific room in a building with an accuracy of 10 centimeters.

Unlike in a commercial video game where entities are uninjured, in these simulations, expected injuries are realistically portrayed. ACATS has incorporated JCATS’ capabilities for training, rehearsing missions and assessing vulnerabilities into scenarios in a civilian setting that range from the spread of a chemical or biological agent within a building to planning evacuations from buildings.

ACATS can analyze tactical vulnerabilities and determine tactical responses to mitigate the effects of a CBRNE or other terrorist attack. It helps train local and state personnel to work together in response to such attacks.

Large groups can be moved more effectively in an ACATS game when crowd behavior is automated, making evacuations from large facilities, such as a military building or sports stadium, easier to model. However, almost every evacuation or large movement of people includes individuals who don’t behave as expected. Plans are for ACATS to incorporate the “hero” who doesn’t follow orders or the person who behaves irrationally in the face of danger.

A goal for ACATS is to include not only the full range of appropriate physics effects but also as many typical human behaviors as possible. The ACATS team is also working to develop a three-dimensional view of the ACATS field of play. Firefighters and other ground responders playing an ACATS game will get a head-on view of the action, like in real life. At the same time, the incident commander will have an overall top-down view.

The Training Technology Development Subgroup (ttdsubgroup@tswg.org) of the Technical Support Working Group also is developing a virtual training system for first responders. The Scenario-Based Interactive Exercise Simulation (SBIES) uses a multiplayer, online gaming technology incorporating virtual reality techniques and interactive simulation.

The role-based scenarios are intended to familiarize participants with agency roles, assets and response protocols. The project will integrate simulation technologies (e.g. geo-specific synthetic environments, virtual reality, first-person interactive simulations, etc.) delivered via computer networks into current Combating Terrorism training and exercise programs.

Once completed, this project will provide trainers and operational personnel with a simulation authoring capability and a network capability simulation environment to supplement CBRNE planning, tabletop, mission rehearsal and full scale exercises.

The goal is to allow almost everyone involved in combating terrorism to use this tool. The software will allow the simulation of events such as CBRNE attacks in realistic environments.

Key highlights of the technology include a realistic synthetic environment that replicates cities, ports and trains. Virtual participants in the simulation wear protective equipment and other mission-specific gear to create a more realistic experience. Users interface with the simulation through a game-style controller similar to a Microsoft Xbox.

The software features an authoring capability, allowing users to customize scenarios to meet specific needs. Scenarios and operational environments will be available via pull-down menus. Users can select from cities such as New York and Philadelphia or a generic urban area. The software resides in a central server, and participants receive a compact disc to install the software on their desktop or laptop computers.

The discs allow users to log in and participate in the exercises. The software is designed to operate on most personal computers. While the simulation graphics will be better on a desktop machine, bandwidth is a major consideration. The program allows users with 56-kilobit dial-up modems to participate.

The system currently is in its proof-of-concept phase and will undergo another year of development. Although the technology is designed for multiple users, initial tests were limited to small groups. The goal is to permit hundreds or even thousands of users to participate concurrently in an exercise.

William D. Siuru, Jr., PhD, PE is a technology journalist based in California and may be reached at wds2@adelphia.net.


Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

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