Security Focus

Idaho State Simulates Emergency Response in Second Life

Imagine entering the virtual world Second Life to discover that a flu pandemic requires you, a health care professional, to attend to stricken patients lying on the streets around an over-capacity virtual hospital. When you report in to collect your virtual uniform, you're told what your responsibilities will be during the disaster and to whom you'll report.

Tremendous cost savings, along with the ability to offer more realistic emergency preparedness training to a wider audience of health care professionals and emergency responders, are two of the reasons behind Play2Train, a two-year-old effort at Idaho State University at Pocatello that is using tools like Second Life to enable distance learning for emergency response training.

Play2Train is affiliated with the Idaho Bio-terrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program (IBAPP), a statewide effort to provide bioterrorism and emergency preparedness training to Idaho's healthcare workforce. The Second Life project is one of several approaches IBAPP is exploring "to create training at the point of need," according to. Ramesh Ramloll, a professor at the Idaho State University Institute of Rural Health who has built a virtual world in Second Life specifically to train emergency response professionals in scenarios such as pandemics, bioterrorism attacks, and other large-scale  disasters.

Also, a group called the Play2Train Open Content Alliance is an evolving collaborative effort among universities to build a permanent archive of open source virtual worlds, including their content and applications, to support public domain emergency preparedness training and exercises.

Second Life is just one of the technologies Play2Train may use for virtual training on emergency health and response issues, Ramloll said. They are also considering possibilities such as Web conferencing software and intelligent, programmable dummies.

In Second Life, the Play2Train environment for emergency response training is spread over three islands that have been purchased specifically for the project. Access to the islands is limited to health care professionals and emergency responders affiliated with the training. One island is dedicated to a virtual town; another contains a virtual hospital, with a second hospital under construction.

The virtual world enables nursing students, as well as practicing health care professionals, to log in during a training session and practice the skills they've learned in more theoretical courses. During a Second Life Play2Train exercise, teams of players are informed of a disaster scenario, then  must work together online in the disaster-struck virtual town. Wearing headphones to communicate with each other, participants attend meetings to prepare their response, as well as working with patients. Realistic effects in the 3D world include stricken patients, other professionals including police and fire fighters, and a streaming newscast about the disaster on a large TV screen in the meeting room. Players can also use emergency equipment such as triage tents, which closely mimic actual facilities.

Far from finding Second Life a second-class substitute for the real thing, Ramloll said that exercises in the virtual world can be superior to real-world training exercises in a number of ways. While desk training might rely on maps and flip charts, along with a model of a town and hospital, Second Life can go much further.

Using Second Life's realistic online world gives a much more realistic feel to the hypothetical event, he said. As proof, Ramloll cites the level of interaction that quickly and naturally develops during training sessions. Because the aesthetics and fidelity of the environment tend to be highly realistic, he's seen students quickly become immersed in the incident at hand. In any case, Ramloll pointed out, a session in Second Life is "certainly more engaging than sitting around trying to work with simulated smoke and wounds...."

There are several cost-saving advantages to the project. Training emergency responders to handle large-scale catastrophes is an expensive proposition, and simulating a real-world pandemic, bioterrorism attack, or infectious disease outbreak takes extensive time and money. In a virtual world, those expenses are slashed.

The challenge of real-world disaster training, of course, includes not only the costs of shutting down an area and creating the expected chaos on-site, but gathering a large number of health care providers and emergency responders into a single place at a given time. With Second Life, students can participate from anywhere.

Ramloll, who worked closely with subject matter experts from the medical community on the Play2Train project, has created other distance-learning emergency preparedness training projects. Using Second Life saved huge sums during development because the virtual world already existed. "[Play2Train] is the cheapest virtual reality project I've ever worked on," he said, primarily because he hasn't had the cost of constructing the virtual world itself from scratch. The main cost in using Second Life--less than a twentieth of the project's overall cost--has been buying the three islands. Even with that cost, Ramloll said, "If you add this up, it's very cheap compared to creating your own virtual world from scratch."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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