First came the reports of shots fired at a major hotel in town. Then, as first responders arrived at the virtual scene, radio traffic buzzed with updates as police crept through hallways in search of gunmen, firefighters raced to stop a growing fire and paramedics raced to save the injured.
It was all fake, of course – a virtual exercise played out on computers on the quiet second floor of a Sacramento police station. But local and federal officials say the technology, used by Sacramento police and firefighters this week on an experimental basis, offers a training experience impossible to replicate in reality.
“We’re never going to be able to simulate something like this in real life,” said police Sgt. Josh Dobson, who was among the officers controlling the virtual suspects’ actions. “We can do this on a smaller scale ... but nothing to the extent represented here.”
The training platform – called the Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment, or “EDGE” – was created by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate with the help of the U.S. Army. The project began in 2011 after first responders told Homeland Security officials that they needed a better way to train with other agencies on a major event.
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This week, a select group of police and firefighters used a pilot version of the EDGE software featuring an “active shooter” scenario. The software includes a virtual replica of a certain, high-end hotel on J Street and can be customized by users to include any number of suspects and weapons.
Sacramento was chosen as a test site in part because of existing relationships with Homeland Security, but also because of its size and prominence as the state capital, officials said.
In creating the program, developers took advantage of advances in the commercial field of video games, citing the kind of three-dimensional graphics seen in popular games like “Grand Theft Auto.” Some of the EDGE technology is even more cutting edge, officials said, like the ability for a virtual fire in the hotel to grow if not tended to by firefighters.
Officials said they hope the EDGE platform will be available for free to any agency nationwide sometime next year. In the meantime, the software will be tweaked based on feedback from the first responders who tested it in Sacramento this week.
Meanwhile, local police and fire leaders will be addressing some of their own policy gaps revealed by the exercise. Milt Nenneman, first responder coordinator for Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, said Sacramento police and firefighters realized this week that some of their policies contradict and need to be amended.
Federal and local officials lauded the program as a critical training tool unlike any other currently available. The training can take any amount of time, can be customized and can be stopped and restarted depending on other demands, officials said. Not to mention, the risks are almost nonexistent.
“It gives us a chance to train on a low-frequency, high-risk incident before it happens in one of our neighborhoods in Sacramento,” said Sacramento fire Battalion Chief Chris Costamagna.
Paramedic Robert Anthony noted the program’s realism, citing the attention to detail in mimicking the look and layout of the model hotel. He also noted that police and firefighters can learn without any threat to their own safety.
“When you make a mistake, you can learn from it,” he said. “In real life, it’d be a harder lesson.”
As Anthony and other paramedics tallied the virtual dead and injured – their screens showing tarps covered in bodies outside the hotel – officers in the next cubicle crept through hallways and back alleys looking for the armed suspects. They wore headsets that relayed dispatchers’ and fellow officers’ radio traffic. One officer gave media interviews after his avatar was gunned down.
Nearby, police and fire command staff huddled together, monitoring the situation, weighing options and dictating responses as the exercise wore on. Though police and firefighters often respond to the same scenes, few events challenge their communication systems the way an active shooter scenario would. Officials and some participants said working out kinks in how the agencies talk and work together might be the most valuable part of the EDGE training.
“It’s a lesson in communication,” Dobson said. “The technology is cool – it’s a game. But I think (we’re) getting some very useful training out of it.”