Disaster Response Training with Virtual Reality

Disasters can strike at any time, and we need to be prepared when they do. Rapid response teams can minimize casualties if they get the right kind of training. Virtual reality is an advanced technology that may be used for this purpose. It provides users with artificial worlds that they can interact with and explore. Rescuers can spend time in these digital environments while they hone their skills in dealing with calamities. To learn more, checkout this infographic created by Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Masters in Occupational Safety Degree.

Natural Disasters and Catastrophes in the United States

Between 1995 and 2015, the United States was hit by a wide-ranging variety of natural disasters that shook the nation. Many of these became headline news due to the extent of the damage. Floods occur with the greatest frequency. Flooding is followed by storms, earthquakes, extreme temperatures, landslides and droughts. Wildfires and volcanic activities are comparatively rare, but they can be deadly when they happen.

In 2015 alone, the total cost of damage from these catastrophes crippled a lot of communities. It is estimated that there were $16.1 billion worth of insured losses due to these events. Of this sum, $9.6 billion were allocated to severe thunderstorms. Roughly $3.5 billion in losses were caused by cold waves and winter storms, and a further $1.9 billion were triggered by wildfires, droughts, and heat waves. These tragedies also claimed the lives of 316 people resulting in immeasurable losses to their loved ones.

Virtual Reality Benefits

This technology can be used to prepare for disasters in a number of ways. For example, people can be immersed in a virtual environment that allows them to get advanced tactical training. They can perform the planned operations in a controlled manner even before the problem strikes. In this digital realm, they can practice as many times as necessary until they are able to achieve mastery of the techniques. They will get used to the chaos so that their actions will become automatic. They will no longer be rattled when faced with a real threat.

Disaster preparedness workers can also engage in more strategic training sessions, which require high levels of critical thinking. These can provide a series of mental challenges that will force them to think of the most sensible solutions while being under time pressure. The experience is similar to what chess players have when they play against quality opposition. They need to think of each move carefully and consider the possible consequences several steps ahead when each situation generates multiple threats.

Narrative immersion can also be implemented using VR technology. Individuals will be presented with a story set in a world that mirrors our own. The experience is similar to watching a movie but with a greater level of engagement. There is no screen at a distance. Viewers are actually inside the story itself and may be able to change its course.

Advantages of VR Disaster Response Training

This type of training has plenty of advantages over conventional methods. Rescuers are able to practice the skills that they need in an environment that does not threaten their well-being. It allows them to get used to the experience and become highly proficient before trying things in real-world situations. Training modules can be packed with a comprehensive array of scenarios that they might encounter in the field. The shock factor will be gone so that trained workers can hit the ground running. The 3-D environments can be created with an excellent level of accuracy. They can depict specific cities, coastal areas, etc.

One of the best reasons for using this technology is its cost-effectiveness. It is much easier to recreate disasters digitally than in real life. Once the simulation programs are completed, they can be used by any number of rescuers. Trainees can repeat exercises as many times as they want at virtually no additional cost. It is truly an efficient way to train as there is no need to wait for elaborate setups to be finished. There are no travel requirements and complex arrangements involved. The modules are there for use when trainees need them. They can be quickly deployed in different departments and across multiple cities.

Challenges of Traditional Disaster Preparedness Methods

In the conventional method, rescuers were taught in a classroom setting where information was provided by the instructor. Web-based training enabled people to view pre-recorded sessions from their homes and go through them at their own pace. From time to time, trainees could be asked to perform tabletop exercises and real-life drills. These present several challenges. For example, both classroom and Web-based learning lack the realism required to prepare adequately for disasters. Drills and exercises can bridge the gap to a certain extent, but they suffer from inconsistency. VR is a cost-effective option that can make training uniform across all levels.

How Homeland Security and Government Agencies and Using VR

A number of government agencies are already using VR in various applications. Among them are the US Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The New York City Office of Emergency Management uses a simulator to train rescuers. This training tool was especially developed for the purpose. Rescuers can navigate a virtual replica of the city using a joystick while completing various tasks. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department uses a commercially available simulator to conduct disaster response training. It can be connected to other emergency operation centers in different parts of the globe for close cooperation. Real-time information can be simulated including newscasts and briefings. These make it an immersive experience that challenges decision-making abilities.

The Department of Homeland Security uses a system called Enhanced Dynamic Geo-social Environment or EDGE. This does precisely what was described earlier: simulate environments where rescue workers can train without putting themselves or civilians at risk. Multiple personnel can train together in a virtual setting to practice coordinated responses and fine-tune strategies. The agency can prepare for complex situations without spending a fortune on equipment and other real-life requirements. Lastly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA is also developing DHS projects in support of national-level virtual exercises.

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