A NIST public safety test center in Boulder allows first responders to simulate emergency situations

During an emergency response, seconds can count. A new public safety test center allows first responders to prepare for such scenarios with the help of virtual and augmented reality.

The US Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority and National Institute of Standards and Technology recently launched their public safety immersive test center in Boulder.

First responders are able to run through simulations such as search-and- rescue activities. Virtual reality training allows for natural interactions through controllerless simulations in which users can crawl through space, touch walls and furniture and even pick up props like fire nozzles or dummies.

Rebecca Jacobson, public outreach coordinator for NIST in Boulder, said that they had been working on communication technology for first responders since Sept. 11, 2001.

These simulations will help first responders build confidence in a controlled environment, while technology developers get to observe test subjects.

Located in the FirstNet authority building, the customized space is equipped with a motion capture system, 42 high-speed optical tracking cameras, a variety of augmented and virtual reality headsets, and gear and fixtures that add a tactile component to simulations.

Scott Ledgerwood is the user interface and experience lead for the facility. They have been building out simulations such as warehouse fires, mass casualty triage situations and navigation tasks for the last two years, he said.

This center benefits developers because they essentially get test subjects for their latest technology, “We can prototype technology with the simulation rather than using it for the first time in costly and dangerous situations,” Ledgerwood said.

The challenges and specific tasks simulated in the test center are also translatable to practice, he said. First responders can use wearable devices such as headsets and backpack personal computers, so that the simulation is more representative of how they complete tasks in the field.

“It’s hard to get the feeling that it’s real with the added stress factors when you are clicking a controller,” Ledgerwood said. Motion capture suits allow users to crawl, climb and interact with dummies just as they would in an actual emergency.

Joe Grasso designs the location-based technology that allows the simulations to run smoothly. Grasso has even developed indoor tracking so that first responders can digitally map buildings before an emergency.

“What’s amazing about these systems is how accurate they are. They can track as close to within a centimeter of precision,” he said.

Augmented reality is also being used in these workshops. AR is used to overlay content over the real world, as opposed to VR, in which a user puts on glasses and essentially steps into a new environment.

AR is being tested at the center as it could potentially be more operational out in the field. First responders might, for example, be able to observe chemicals, vitals or other helpful visuals through AR during an emergency scenario.

However, most of these cutting-edge technological developments are not yet being used in the field. Jacobson added, “Our full content is not yet for user consumption.”

The facility is being offered at no cost to public safety agencies and organizations that support public safety response efforts, including private sector and academic institutions.

Sterling Folden from Mountain View Fire Rescue was part of one of the groups that used some of the technology in the public safety test center.

“Without this program pushing the boundaries of public safety technology, we would not be able to make the advancements we have in our technology today,” Folden said. “The collaboration between industry experts, the government and the public safety sector is great to be a part of. We can’t wait to see what is in store for the future.”

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