County tries virtual terror training

Florida's Osceola County is looking to virtual reality tools to help it

test the terrorism section of its Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan

(CEMP), the detailed strategy all municipal organizations have to prepare

and keep up-to-date.

Given the potential scope of emergencies — something the Sept. 11 terrorist

attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon highlighted — it's becoming

clear that old "sandbox and slide show" methods of emergency response training

cannot handle the complex plans organizations now have to put in place.

Osceola chose Environmental Tectonics Corp.'s Advanced Disaster Management

Simulator (ADMS) to help with its training and CEMP validation. The simulator

involves real-life representations of various threats that teams of emergency

personnel can view and interact with in a large virtual reality theater

specifically built for that purpose by Environmental Tectonics.

"Having something that you can use repetitively, and that provides a

safe environment for teaching people when to do or not do something during

an emergency, is a phenomenal advantage," said Matt Meyers, director of

Osceola County's Office of Emergency Management. "My mind has been spinning

since the very first time we used it."

The system gives people the kind of experience and skills they can only

learn by being forced into making decisions, he said, "and that's much more

than paper and classroom teaching can provide."

ADMS offers governments a mechanism for performing online drills of

emergency responses at a fraction of the cost it would take to conduct physical

simulations using props, actors and other expensive resources, said Shabbir

Merchant, president of Environmental Tectonics' simulation group. It allows

people to get close to the threats posed by a real incident, he said, "and

that just can't be done by a guy sitting in front of a workstation."

Although county officials' decision to use ADMS predated the Sept. 11

attacks, Meyers believes those events will only serve to highlight the importance

of virtual reality training. The scope of the attacks and their results

— something Meyers saw for himself on a visit to "ground zero" in New York

— is something "you can't duplicate without using virtual reality," he

said. "You just can't teach all of the possibilities without it."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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