Virtual Reality: The New Training Ground for First Responders

Simulation technology could help better prepare those who work in dangerous environments

23 July 2015

Fire fighters, bomb disposal officers, and others responding to emergencies need hands-on training that is safe and inexpensive.

Virtual reality (VR) simulators could be the answer, according to a study from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, published in April in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. Technological advances in VR are likely to bring down the cost of training in the near future, and using simulation makes it safe for responders to practice in new and dangerous environments. The challenge, however, is how to make VR easy to use and as close to real-life situations as possible, but this is not so straightforward.

Designing a virtual reality system requires an enormous amount of detail and data, which makes it difficult to translate into simple user interfaces. The researchers add that the virtual systems we see today may look like programs that can be applied to training, but they are created by visual artists and don’t provide the specific details first responder need.


VR for emergency training must also include people and moving objects like vehicles. The researchers decided that the game development platform Unity would be ideal to create the VR system because it is adaptable, enables user-controlled changes, and even presents situations that the users themselves have not thought of creating.

To start, the researchers made a 3-D model of the MITRE campus, in McLean, Va., which included the floorplan, details of the structural materials of the building, and layout of its heating, cooling, and electrical systems. They then uploaded this data onto the Unity gaming platform and removed superfluous items such as plumbing details due to information overload. They then highlighted key features of the area to help responders easily spot, for example, emergency staircases. This would allow users to view all this information through a virtual reality simulator as they move through the building.


The researchers believe that emergency response teams could use this method to create a model of its own area, and that it would even be possible to recreate an entire neighborhood.   

The next step is to tweak the model so that responders can carry out specific tasks, such as to find a child in a burning building or identify and disable a bomb. This, the researchers say, would require more advanced programming to accurately depict the complex situations that happen during an emergency situation.

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