Can Virtual Reality Keep Us Safe During Disasters?

Can Virtual Reality Keep Us Safe During Disasters?
Summary: The United Nations recently commemorated the International Day for Disaster Reduction, an annual effort to raise the profile of disaster preparedness. This year, the day’s focus was on society’s most vulnerable: the estimated one billion people around the world living with disabilities.

Game-based training for disaster and emergency situations

By Steven Blum

Unsurprisingly, the disabled have a hard time finding shelter when disaster strikes. Just 20% of the world’s people with disabilities could evacuate immediately without difficulty in the event of a disaster, according to the global survey conducted by the UN in connection with the Day.

Similarly, when evacuation orders reach hospitals, those who are sick or disabled present unique challenges to the attending physicians and nurses charged with helping them evacuate. How a hospital responds to challenges such as these can drastically affect patient mortality rates. But what if a video game could help?

Professor Thomas Bremer, speaker at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013, is developing tools in the virtual world that could have a drastic effect on how emergencies are handled by hospitals. His 3D software, developed in coordination with the Charité Hospital and the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, realistically depicts complex, and dangerous, scenarios that take place in hospitals when disaster hits. Part of what makes disaster-preparedness so challenging for hospitals is the multitude of possible scenarios for which to prepare. Potential disaster scenarios at hospitals range from floods to hostage situations, bomb threats to earthquakes, HVAC (air filtration system) failures to tornados.

Bremer’s interest lies in researching whether game-based training would allow doctors, nurses and administrators to learn and retain more information about how to respond to these scenarios than if hospitals relied on the usual training “based on lectures and literature only”.

Hospitals prepare for emergencies in many ways: creating manuals, training employees and running drills are just a few. One study by the George Washington University found that emergency preparedness cost hospitals an estimated $232,000 per year. Courses in hospital emergency preparedness at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center cost $1,575 per participant, not including air-fares, accommodations and course materials.  Bremer seeks to challenge prevailing assumptions that the most effective method for disaster preparedness is a live drill. “An actual emergency training in the building as a live performed measure is prohibitively expensive, although it is presumed to offer the best learning results,” he writes.

In fact, a high quality simulation could realistically recreate scenarios inside a hospital, thus increasing the efficacy of training, he claims. “Simulating the exact surrounding of a given infrastructure inside a computer using techniques from actual AAA computer game titles might yield a high degree of immersion, making the training as realistic as possible.”Extensive, immersive disaster training is vital to hospitals because, in stressful circumstances, the potential for error is high. One of the most well-known recent hospital scandals in the U.S. involved doctors and nurses at a New Orleans hospital who were arrested in connection with the deaths of four patients after giving them lethal doses of medication during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. When floodwaters finally hit the Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans, the chaos over evacuations led to dozens of deaths, some at the hands of nurses.

Part of the problem, according to the New York Times, was that there was no scenario listed in the 246-page book for emergency preparedness that "offered guidance for dealing with a complete power failure or how to evacuate the hospital if the streets were flooded”.A virtual reality simulation of emergency preparedness could provide more varied scenarios and help hospitals avoid the hasty, panic-driven thinking which can lead to unnecessary accidents and deaths.

The need for disaster management training is expected to grow over the next decade, mostly due to the effects of global warming. With glaciers melting, sea levels rising, cloud forests drying and “100 year storms” ravaging cities, it’s never been more important for institutions to be prepared for the worst. A report released last week by scientists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa stated that if greenhouse emissions continue their escalation, temperatures across most of the earth will rise to levels with no precedent in recorded history by 2040.

Facing the combination of rising sea-levels and the increased likelihood and intensity of violent weather events, disaster response will have to get more technological. Just last week, India was forced to evacuate 800,000 citizens from the path of Cyclone Phailin, in a region expected to bear the brunt of the effects of global warming. The success of the evacuation – with between 15 and 21 deaths reported – has been attributed in part by the New York Times to “vast improvements in the country’s physical infrastructure and communication systems”.Because disaster can strike anywhere in the world, disaster response technology, including gamified simulations, need to be easy for anyone to use, including those with little to no tech knowledge. "Intuitive access to the software is essential," Bremer says. Hopefully, with adequate resources at their disposal, hospitals will continue to be safe havens – no matter the obstacles they’re up against.

Thomas Bremer will present the results of his research project, Game-based training for disaster and emergency situations, at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013, in a session entitled “Can serious games help us prepare for emergency situations?” He will speak on this fascinating topic alongside Roman Breuer of Aachen University and Atish Gonsalves of Find out more about the session here, or visit the ONLINE EDUCA Programme.