UIC study explores emergency training in Second Life

The University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health is recruiting public health workers to participate in emergency preparedness training -- in Second Life.

The UIC study will gauge whether the popular virtual reality game can be used for simulations of life-and-death situations like terrorist attacks and epidemics.

Researchers expect using Second Life will cut the costs, time and difficulty associated with traditional emergency training exercises. Those are typically conducted through role-playing scenarios in the real world.  Researchers expect to start conducting exercises on Second Life this fall.

Public health "should be on the curve, on the leading edge of technology," says UIC researcher Kevin Harvey. But agencies aren't keeping up with technology, he says, and could be saving time and money by finding new ways to train.

Emergency preparedness training usually requires closing down facilities and calling people off of work—but conducting emergency drills virtually is less disruptive and more convenient, says Colleen Monahan, the study's principal investigator. Nearly all public health departments in the U.S. train workers for emergencies through traditional tabletop exercises and simulated real world drills.

Traditional methods, however, have their limitations.

“You can’t very well blow up buildings, have terrorist situations and fires in the classroom,” says Jim Bandy, president and CEO of Brainband Technology Services. The company builds online learning courses using virtual tools like Second Life.

Researchers will start recruiting 40 public health agencies to participate in the study this summer. Half of the participating agencies will use the virtual world in support of emergency preparedness planning, with the other participants using traditional means of planning.

Harvey says researchers already suspect the Second Life training will work well.

“We’ve done this training before and people are extremely enthusiastic and positive about it. We think we know what the benefits are,” Harvey says.  

Monahan called virtual world practice “another nice way for health departments to bring in their partners” and mentioned that agencies can make distance a non-factor while running joint emergency preparedness simulations.
The study is funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harvey thinks it’s time for more federal agencies to start funding virtual world research studies.

“I think that more and more funding will be available to do studies in this area,” Harvey says. “We’re reaching critical mass in the number of people who are using these environments so it’s time now for research studies to begin using this technology."  

Still, he says, satisfaction is not universal when it comes to virtual reality.

“Of course some people don’t take to it. Some people didn’t take to the computer when it came out. Some people probably didn’t take to the telephone when it was invented,” Harvey says. “But way more people love [the virtual world] after being exposed to it than don’t. Way more."