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Virtual Terrorism Response Academy rewrites video game to prepare first responders
Dartmouth's Interactive Media Laboratory (IML) has launched a new, video game-based training program for first responders featuring simulated terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction.
The program, called "Ops-Plus for WMD Hazmat," is the first course for IML's Virtual Terrorism Response Academy (VTRA). The course provides more than 16 hours of training to handle CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive) emergencies. Dozens of local, state, and federal responders helped develop and test "Ops-Plus."
"We blend video of real humans who are expert hazmat trainers into the gaming environment," said IML Director Joseph V. Henderson, MD. He brings to the project more than 23 years of experience creating interactive training for medical, military, and governmental users. "It's not just glorified PowerPoint. It's accessible and effective. Even if you've never played a video game, you can learn from 'Ops-Plus,' and you can easily use this over and over again to keep your skills sharp."
Throughout the interactive program, fire, police and EMS trainees learn from leading WMD and hazmat-response experts. The course begins in the simulated Hazmat Learning Lab, then proceeds to fully interactive, simulated emergency situations. During the program, the trainee uses accurately modeled instruments, answers various WMD-related questions, and makes tactical decisions. In the debriefing section, an expert trainer explains the impact of the trainee's decisions during the simulations.
"The trainee faces a series of increasingly challenging tactical situations," said Henderson. "The choices the trainee makes drive realistic scenarios that would involve life-and-death consequences during real incidents."
For example, the trainee must determine what personal protective gear and special instruments to use for scenarios involving a suspected "dirty bomb" lab, including equipment that detects and measures radiation. The scenarios encourage trainees to consider the time of day, the temperature, and weather conditions, all of which can influence real hazmat operations.
The VTRA program helps address what Henderson said is a national problem of public-safety personnel being issued equipment and instruments they aren't fully trained to use. The program may be used individually or by instructor-led groups, either as preparatory/refresher instruction or as a complement to live training.
IML created VTRA with federal funding administered by the Department of Homeland Security. "VTRA helps America's first responders achieve one of the overarching national priorities, which is strengthening chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive detection, response, and decontamination," said Corey Gruber, acting deputy administrator for the new FEMA National Preparedness Directorate. "The program's distance-learning approach enables us to reach millions of first responders right where they serve. It complements the hands-on training provided by federal, state, local and tribal facilities. VTRA allows students to arrive for hands-on training well-prepared, and it allows them to retain their skills and proficiency."
Available for purchase since January, "Ops-Plus" has already met with enthusiastic response from local, state, and federal responders, training partners and academies. "As someone who's been through a lot of hazmat training, I can tell you VTRA helps me zero in on specific concepts I'm trying to get across," said Team Leader Alan Cagle with the Guilford County (NC) Emergency Services Hazmat Team. "Not everyone has been fortunate enough to learn about hazmat in person with John Eversole. VTRA captured the personalities of John and the other instructors. Using this program is like sitting across a table with them at a hazmat conference and learning from them one-on-one. This really is the next best thing to being there." Eversole, who passed away on May 20, 2007, was the retired district chief of special operations for the Chicago Fire Department and was prominent in national hazmat/WMD responders' organizations.
"This is a valuable new tool for emergency responders," said Martin Wybourne, vice provost for research at Dartmouth. "I expect it will prove especially useful for rural communities that might not have ready access to such hazmat training otherwise." Wybourne also holds the Francis and Mildred Sears Professorship in Physics.
IML designed "Ops-Plus" to run on older Windows-based computers that are still used in fire and police stations as well as the latest models. The program requires at least an 800 MHz processor (1.5 GHz recommended) and 256MB RAM (512 MB recommended). To create VTRA, Henderson's team used the open-source game "Quake II" and created a custom authoring environment dubbed Tamale.
IML, part of the Dartmouth Medical School, specializes in combining emerging technology with innovative instructional design. IML created VTRA with support from Dartmouth's Institute for Security Technology Studies (ISTS). ISTS strengthens homeland security through interdisciplinary research, education and outreach programs that focus on technology critical for cyber security and trust.
"IML has done a wonderful job using emerging technology to address the issue of emergency preparedness," said David Kotz, director of ISTS and a professor of computer science. "By developing software that's effective and easy to use, Joe Henderson's group has created a resource that will be beneficial for many, many first responders and their communities."
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