As part of an initiative to improve homeland security, researchers at Washington State University are working with California-based EON Reality Inc. in the development of a FIrst Responders’ Simulation and Training (FIRST) Center at the university.

The FIRST Center provides a virtual environment in which first responders will conduct realistic “hands-on” training in various aspects of homeland security at a fraction of the alternative real-life training cost. This center is designed to train emergency and security personnel and first responders in areas such as handling and disposing of dangerous devices or chemical/biological materials, infrastructure antiterrorist protection, and simulation of collaboration environments during emergencies.

The importance of simulation for training emergency response personnel has been reemphasized recently in a National Research Council (2002) report. The report recommends that the office of Homeland Security and FEMA, in conjunction with the state and local officials, collaborate to develop and deploy threat-based simulation models and training modules for Emergency Operations Center training, for identification of weaknesses in systems and staff, and for testing and qualifying EOC teams throughout the country.

Tools in this category use simulations to mimic and present situations of a disaster event to trainees with the intent to improve their capabilities for effective emergency response. Decision makers to first responders use these tools. The simulation tools that train responders use one or more computer monitors to graphically unfold the simulated event and the response actions.

The center will be one in a nationwide network of training and research centers established by EON to address various aspects of homeland security, from physical terrorism to border security to bioterrorism. The centers enable U.S. governmental agencies — federal, state and local — to efficiently develop, educate and train appropriate personnel in all phases of homeland security including detection, preparation, prevention, protection, response and recovery.

WSU has extensive virtual reality research expertise in areas related to realistic interactions between human and virtual objects in immersive environments, bidirectional data integration between virtual reality environments and traditional commercial engineering applications (e.g., CAD), and Internet-based real-time collaboration between dissimilar software systems (e.g., CAD and ergonomics). WSU experience includes virtual assembly for industry, in particular, a Virtual Assembly Design Environment application that companies can use for assembly simulations.

Eon’s Homeland Security and Defense Center is unique because it addresses the current need for networked and smoothly integrated systems that can be used by a variety of responders. First responders can, for the first time, share fully interactive simulations from a multiwall immersive display, head-mounted VR devices, laptops or even Web-based solutions.

“Our joint approach allows all applications to be fully scalable from desktop PCs to large multiprocessor computers,” said Sankar Jayaram and Uma Jayaram, professors in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at WSU. “All training can be conducted either online using normal PCs, immersed using head-mounted displays, or in a theater environment using stereoscopic large-screen display systems.”

“This partnership adds a very important component to our ongoing efforts within homeland security,” said Mats W. Johannsson, president of EON Reality. “Bringing together the expertise of WSU in interaction between humans and virtual objects and environments with EON’s scalable software and seamlessly integrated display solutions will provide an effective resource for research and training. First responders can learn how to move/operate safely and quickly and make faster, more informed decisions. We believe that this approach provides a very cost-effective method of deploying homeland security training as it reduces field exercise time, increases retention rate and even provides self-study capabilities.”

The initial investment was made possible through grants and support furnished by WSU, WSU’s sponsors, EON Reality and Viztek. Funded as a research, teaching, and training facility, the FIRST Center will be also used by graduate and undergraduate students in the university’s program.