A NIST Public Safety Test Center in Boulder Enables First Responders to Simulate Emergency Situations

In an emergency response, seconds can count. A new public safety test center enables first responders to prepare for such scenarios using virtual and augmented reality.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority and the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently launched their Immersive Public Safety Test Center in Boulder.

First responders can run simulations such as search and rescue activities. Virtual reality training enables natural interactions through controllerless simulations in which users can crawl through space, touch walls and furniture, and even pick up props like fire hoses or mannequins.

Rebecca Jacobson, public outreach coordinator for NIST in Boulder, said they have been working on communication technologies for first responders since 9/11.

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

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

Scott Ledgerwood is the UI and Experience Lead for the install. They have been building simulations such as warehouse fires, mass casualty triage situations and navigation tasks over the past two years, he said.

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

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

“It’s hard to feel like it’s real with the added stressors when you click a controller,” Ledgerwood said. Motion capture suits allow users to crawl, climb and interact with mannequins as they would in a real emergency.

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

“What’s amazing about these systems is their accuracy. They can track to within a centimeter of accuracy,” he said.

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

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

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

The installation is offered free of charge to public safety agencies and organizations that support public safety response efforts, including the private sector and academic institutions.

Sterling Folden of Mountain View Fire Rescue was among 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 wouldn’t be able to make the advances we have in our technology today,” Folden said. “The collaboration between industry experts, government and the public safety sector is great. We can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us.

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