Virtual reality training system for first responders

Immersive Modular Preparedness Intelligent Tutor (IMPRINT)

When there’s a fire or chemical spill, firefighters arrive in their heavy-duty hazardous materials (HAZMAT) suits. How quickly and safely these first responders stop the fire or contain the spill depends on how well their training has prepared them. This training is known as hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER) training.

Funded by the Worker Training Program (WTP) of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), co-PIs Austin Crumpton and Jessica Voge were just beginning to create a virtual reality (VR) system to support HAZWOPER training when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. When the US government passed a bill for $8.3 billion dollars of supplemental coronavirus funding, the team won a supplemental grant to extend IMPRINT to deal with the complications of COVID-19 as well.

Firefighters in HAZMAT gear performing operations on a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus. Image credit: Michael Kates

The ultimate goal is that we’ll have a VR tabletop exercise that is complementary to a training organization’s training curriculum. But also, to go with that big exercise at the end, we want to have these smaller VR modules that we insert throughout the training to give people hands-on experience with different smaller subcomponents of the exercise.

Austin Crumpton,
Scientist at Charles River and Co-Principal Investigator on the IMPRINT effort
Austin Crumpton,
Scientist at Charles River and Co-Principal Investigator on the IMPRINT effort

The IMPRINT Admin Supplement is a VR training system that will help first responders learn new decontamination protocols to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This supplement extends our current IMPRINT grant to develop VR HAZWOPER training for firefighters. IMPRINT uses our VIRTUOSO Software Development Kit (VSDK) to support distributed, multi-player training, allowing first responders to safely immerse in a VR environment while physically distancing from one another.

On a tour of a Boston Fire Department training facility with Fire Lieutenant Michael Kates, Charles River staff captured images of gear, which they will use to create realistic VR assets. From left to right: HAZMAT suit, air compressor for filling self-contained breathing apparatus, and HAZMAT facepiece

To deal with COVID-19, first responders have had to adopt more safety practices into their standard operating procedures, including social distancing and working in smaller, self-contained groups. Before the pandemic, responders helped each other on difficult tasks, like removing bulky HAZMAT boots; now they must disinfect and decontaminate as a first step.

Amongst emergency responders, firefighters are one of the biggest user groups that receive HAZWOPER training; Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations require that they receive this training before they can respond to HAZMAT events.

An overturned truck. Image credit: Michael Kates

To figure out how to best train firefighters with VR tools, we collaborated with Fire Lieutenant Michael Kates of the Boston Fire Department (BFD) Hazmat Response, Special Operations Command. Kates is the designated training instructor and coordinator for all of the BFD Hazmat Response Team, as well as technical and gross decontamination units.

HAZWOPER training and recertification typically consists of classroom lectures guided by videos and presentations, culminating in a final test and a tabletop exercise, where students sit around a table and roleplay or talk through how they would respond to an incident. But these HAZWOPER training practices face a well-known deficiency—a lack of engagement compared to the dramatic, real-world events.

Building on extensive VR experience at Charles River, Voge and Crumpton are creating VR training modules so trainees can rehearse procedures in real-time in a virtual environment. This kind of training can build muscle memory and habituate them to their duties. VR also offers the ability to replicate hazardous situations that would otherwise be difficult, expensive, or impossible to experience, such as a case where a car has flipped over in the middle of a road and the responder must work in oncoming traffic.

Although VR software is becoming increasingly widespread for training, there are few existing solutions for emergency responder training and none that are widely recognized or distributed, according to Voge. Most existing solutions attempt to replace existing training; instead, Voge and Crumpton want their system to complement existing training.

The Virtuoso toolkit developed at Charles River supports a variety of VR experiences, like a medical training scenario (pictured)

The team will use Oculus Quest as their VR platform, a portable, head-mounted display that lets multiple users participate in the same training exercise and use realistic walking and grasping behaviors during scenarios.

An important HAZWOPER training organization, The New England Consortium, also funded by the NIEHS WTP, has expressed interest in this effort and plans to follow updates on the project. If Charles River receives additional funding, Voge and Crumpton plan to explore commercializing their work into a for-sale training app. Such an app would provide a high-tech training tool that is firmly juxtaposed against old-fashioned training props, such as mannequins.

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Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R43ES031818. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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