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Supporting disaster response with immersive learning

Disaster response team searching amongst rubble

When it comes to responding to disasters, natural or man-made, preparation is key.

Disaster response can be complex, involving multiple agencies and decisions need to be taken quickly.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Civilian responders, whether from a medical, police, fire and rescue or humanitarian background, face many challenges when executing an effective disaster preparedness and response strategy.

The best way to prepare is often through large scale, scenario based exercises that simulate crisis situations. They put participants under pressure and make the learning as realistic as possible. The challenge is that these can be costly, present time and attendance challenges – and they tend to be one-off events. There is no chance for repeated, safe failure. And the fallout from making a wrong decision in a real-life disaster scenario can be high.

As a result, there has been an increasing demand for alternative approaches to the traditional methods. Whether to supplement face to face learning or as a replacement where it’s simply not possible to provide responders with access to this type of exercise.

Emerging technologies

The application of emerging technology in the emergency preparedness and response field is increasingly helping support capacity, providing greater consistency in methodology and richer detail to assess learning impact. And a well-designed simulation can present a pedagogically sound solution to multidisciplinary need: allowing users to understand the role and approach of different agencies.

Simulation-based learning is a constructivist learning model that provides learners with an experience that closely reflects the real world context. This approach means that the Learning Designer or Operations Leader can factor into the simulation authentic situations that are likely to be encountered in the field.

Simulation-based learning often goes hand in hand with gamification because they are both grounded in immersive and interactive principals. Gamification is defined as the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It is learning how to do the serious things in a game-like fashion.

Interactive video scenarios for learning offer one way of combining the two above approaches in a cost effective way. Projects we have been involved with like Resilience Academy have involved using a decision based approach to translate established security and resilience exercises into the digital space. Depending on the choice learners select, the narrative unfolds depicting a range of consequences aligned to their user journey.

Realistic learning

Using simulations, whether it’s an interactive video approach or computer generated scenarios, can help reduce risks by providing a realistic and experiential insight into how situations could unfold. Moreover, they allow the learner to make an incorrect attempt and then try again, providing the ability to fail safely.

An uncertain or unprepared decision in real-life disaster response could be detrimental not just for the individual but for the whole team and the affected communities. Well designed modules can be packed with a comprehensive array of choices that responders might encounter in the field, improving engagement and narrative immersion.

By building in gamification mechanics that offer learning interactions, research has shown that learners respond positively to the experience and knowledge retention increases.

And as the content is hosted online, there are often no travel demands and complex participation arrangements. The modules are there when trainees need them and they can be accessed from anywhere in the world – particularly relevant for international responders.

Cooperation and effective communication during major incidents is imperative when considering how many different roles are called upon to successfully respond to a disaster. Digital simulations can incorporate the perspectives of different disciplines within the game mechanics. Perhaps a nurse could better understand the role a search and rescue team or the operational demands of the police when responding to a major disturbance.

VR for disaster Management

The International Red Cross Committee’s first Virtual Reality unit in Bangkok exhibits an insightful take on how VR for disaster management training can assist teams in understanding the purpose of different roles on the ground.  In a bid to recreate the daunting challenge of identifying bodies, which can help in repatriating them to families, police officers and forensic specialists were the first to trial the game ‘Lost Forever’.

A number of agencies are already using VR in various applications. Among them are the UK’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation and also, the US Department of Homeland Security. Here at Near-Life, we’re currently working on a VR course with the UK’s emergency medical team that is looking at helping develop best practice in relation to security around deploying emergency field hospitals, based on World Health Organisation guidelines.

Possibilities of strategic and tactical immersion become limitless when partnering up with virtual reality. Creating geo-specific 3D environments that accurately depict the infrastructure and resources available is one of its major perks. 

The future of learning for disaster response

Globally, hundreds of disasters occur each year, causing immense destruction, loss and suffering. In 2018 alone, ReliefWeb reported that the world was dealt more than 315 natural disasters causing 11,804 deaths with over 68 million people affected. With the threat of climate change looming the grim reality is that things are likely to get worse. And the demand on national and international responders will only grow. 

Effective, efficient and adaptable learning has a very important part to play in supporting these global efforts. Given many of the, often legitimate, concerns people have around the rapid changes in technology, the use of immersive learning to support these much needed to global efforts is hopefully a clear cut case of the potential of #techforgood. 

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