Free training tool aids first responders
BreakAway Games released the final version of its Incident Commander training simulator, PC software that lets players assume leadership roles and drive virtual first responder communications during a mock emergency situation.
National Incident Management System (NISM) standards are the core principle of Incident Commander, said Lucien Parsons, BreakAway’s executive producer and director of product platforms. These standards were enacted on Feb. 28, 2003, by President George W. Bush through Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5, which ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish interoperability communications and funding standards so government, private-sector and non-governmental organizations could collaborate during emergencies.
The DHS outsourced the NISM training tool’s development to the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ) — the research, development and evaluation arm of the Department of Justice. Before approaching BreakAway to develop a simulator, NIJ researchers documented first responders’ critical-incident experiences from the past five years. Their request for an incident command training simulator was a main driver to develop the software, said Glenn Schmitt, NIJ’s acting director.
“People involved will tell you, after the fact, that they wished they had thought about something better, or more, before the event occurred,” Schmitt said. “Our tool is designed to help them think through issues well in advance — even practice going through them — before they have to face the incident in real life.”
In mid-2003, NIJ commissioned BreakAway to develop a simulator, Parsons said. BreakAway agreed to invest its own capital, as long as it retained all intellectual property rights, including any computer coding. Schmitt said overall costs for modeling and simulation in fiscal year 2006 was $1,762,151, with the NIJ investing a total of $340,000.
“The key is the public/private partnership,” Schmitt said. “It would be prohibitive for us to pay the entire cost.”
NIJ officials set the technological parameters for the simulator, according to Parsons. It had to be inexpensive to implement, user friendly, intuitive — to reduce training time — and able to operate on a 5-year-old PC with no graphic capabilities. In addition, it needed to run on computers with a Pentium processor possessing 256 megabytes of memory and on a Microsoft Windows operating system.
“Basically, it couldn’t be a 3-D game,” Parsons said. “Those parameters eliminate that immediately.”
NIJ sought a simulator able to train first responders in a virtual environment rather than the live or paper-based exercises held in classrooms, which currently is standard practice in academies nationwide. This tool had to be capable of training smaller- and larger-sized departments — especially those that lacked funding to run exercises or to drill on the NIMS standards in a unified way, Parsons said.
The result was Incident Commander. The simulator pushes players to use NIMS protocols by limiting their ability to complete the tasks assigned, which include organizing a team of first responders and responding to an emergency scene. These protocols are practiced through crisis-management scenarios set in localized regions, according to Parsons.
NIJ’s Schmitt said recent historical events were the basis for the scenarios. These include school shootings, hurricanes, chemical spills, terrorist activities, bomb threats and hostage situations. “What we excluded is a plane flying through a building because it’s not something, we hope, will ever be replicated again,” he said.
First responders seemingly are receptive to the simulator and its principles. Chief Randy Justus, a 36-year veteran of the Mundelein (Ill.) Fire Department, recently test-drove Incident Commander to determine whether it effectively prepared first responders for communications management during an incident.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “This would help you prepare for … and think about ways of improving command structures.”
To receive points, players must put together a NIMS-compliant system, which includes an incident commander, financial considerations, logistical road maps and overall operational strategies. Players have access to a firefighter component, an EMS component, a law-enforcement component and a public-works component, Justus said.
“I haven’t seen anything else [on the market] that ties police and public works,” he said.
However, the simulator’s shortcoming is that it does not test first responders’ ability to organize resources for large-scale or national disasters. Justus and 600 other Illinois firefighters went to help out on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina through the state’s Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which calls for mutual assistance to manage any emergency declared by the governor.
Although firefighter teams were prepared for a crisis when they reached their base at Louisiana State University, Justus said, they were not prepared for downed radios, hours without rest, cars as makeshift hotel rooms and the tops of fire engines being used as ad hoc cots. He questioned whether Incident Commander would help prepare first responders for another large-scale event, such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11.
“I don’t know if it would improve the response process to a nationwide event,” Justus said. “It’s not gathering resources and driving 1200 miles.”
Parsons admits the simulator focuses more on smaller jurisdictions with fewer than 500,000 residents. A large-scale, Katrina-esque event is not one of the scenarios, he said. Also, it does not test players on mass evacuations or inter-county issues. But the simulator does include a severe storm aftermath scenario and an area map capable of showing regions outside the localized area, which lets users bring in responders from other districts and organizations. An instructional PDF and an eight-page, quick-start guide included on the CD show users how to use this and other components, he said. In addition, an editor is shipped with the simulator, which lets users customize scenarios and protocols.
Even though nationwide events are not addressed, Justus said the simulator would have an application for departments nationwide because first responders need to understand the NIMS protocols.
“If you want to be reimbursed in the future when something happens in your area — or even be eligible for grants — you have to really use the NIMS system,” Justus said. “And this [simulator] forces you to use it to obtain a higher score.”
Multiple, simultaneous roles for player interaction are available for individual or group play over the Internet or on a local network. Justus sees the multiple player option as an important component as participants can take on different positions and run scenarios.
“It would be like a real incident,” he said.
BreakAway is in the process of evaluating what needs to happen next, including whether or not the company moves forward with the simulator and new versions, or partners with the DOJ in creating additional tools, Parsons said.
Schmitt said after determining initial demand, which now is estimated at 30,000 copies, the agency might invest in another version. He foresees adding rural- and urban-specific scenarios to new versions, depending on feedback from users.
Incident Commander is free to authorized public-safety agencies and is available at the Justice Technology Information Network’s Web site at www.justnet.org, or by calling (800) 248-2742.
Q&A with Lucien Parsons
On Sept. 13, BreakAway’s Lucien Parsons fielded questions about Incident Commander over an online forum hosted by the Emergency Information Infrastructure Project — a non-profit dedicated to enhancing the practice of emergency management. Below is an excerpt:
Q: Can local maps be loaded to make it more realistic?
A: Local county maps can be loaded and populated with your available resources.
Q: What level of prior training does a participant need to work with IC? Would NIMS 300-400 be sufficient? How much prior experience would be needed?
A: Incident Commander is designed to be used during all levels of training. In solo mode, you can use it as a way to familiarize yourself with the roles and responsibilities of the various command positions, and in a multi-user setting, you can practice implementing your local plans.
Q: Can this be integrated with [the] Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations [system]?
A: We haven’t integrated it technically, but IC can be used as a visualization tool with any other type of exercise, even live exercises.
Q: Will the scenario pack include natural events such as flash flooding, hurricane, tsunami, etc? Or is it mainly scripted to man-made events?
A: The scenarios include a severe storm aftermath, a chemical spill, a school hostage situation, and a bomb threat. Additional scenarios can be created by the user.
Q: How do personnel within the software communicate?
A: We use a chat window in the simulation. Communications from the system regarding events or suggestions are routed according to protocol and are modified by activation of the Communications Section. Most sessions we have been involved in so far have either used their actual equipment (radios) or speakerphones for communication outside of the simulation.
Source: EIIP Virtual Forum, www.emforum.org