College turns to virtual world to train emergency workers

Faculty members have used virtual settings for weekly office hours.

Bringing firefighters, police officers, nurses, and doctors together for emergency training can be a logistical – and expensive – nightmare, so Algonquin College in Ontario has brought the emergency workers together for practice runs in a 3D virtual setting.

Algonquin, a campus of 18,000 students in Ottawa, has held several practice sessions this year for the myriad experts who come together at the scene of an emergency, where a variety of pressing security and health issues must be addressed, and addressed quickly.

Using avatars in a virtual meeting space, firefighters, for example, interact with police officers at the make-believe scene of a disaster. The interactions, officials said, were realistic and served as worthwhile training for the unpredictable surroundings of an emergency.

“This has really helped the college create real scenarios, wherever people are,” said Brent Hadden, leader of research and development for Avaya, the company that makes web.alive, the 3D environment used by Algonquin. “It was hard to get people together for major training sessions. That means that for the first time, they’re not restrained by their geographic location.”

College officials can add PowerPoint presentations and audio and video files to supplement the virtual-world training. The system can translate languages and help participants better understand the accents from avatars in the 3D space.

Hadden said the repetition of virtual practice allows for far more frequent training sessions for emergency workers in Algonquin College’s emergency management program.

Scheduling in-person training sessions meant that Algonquin officials had limited opportunities to help emergency workers coordinate with each other.

“When they run into a real-life situation, they’ll know exactly how to respond now,” he said.

Meeting in the virtual world could have applications in higher education outside of emergency preparedness. Fifty colleges and universities are using or piloting Avaya’s web.alive, Hadden said, and faculty members at many of those schools have found the technology useful for office hours.