First responders need as much training as they can get to deal with catastrophic events, but government agencies don’t have the time and money to stage full-scale exercises as often as they would like.

But the federal government’s deployed new gaming technology that could solve this problem for police and fire personnel — all they need is a computer, nimble fingers and an open mind.

The Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment (EDGE) system allows responders to engage in simulated environments without endangering civilians or themselves. The technology puts them inside a video game for virtual disaster mitigation, but the purpose is to educate, not entertain. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) partnered with the U.S. Army to develop it.

EDGE is a government-owned prototype built on the popular Unreal Engine, the same platform behind many consumer first-person shooter and online role-playing games. In law enforcement’s case, however, EDGE allows players to control an in-game avatar, navigate terrain and also use vehicles, equipment and tools to apprehend suspects, evacuate bystanders and perform other site-specific actions.

The players communicate with each other through gaming controls and headsets while training on the system. The communication and coordination required during the simulation is designed to prepare them to build those skills so that they are better prepared for when an actual crisis occurs.

The DHS S&T partnered with the Sacramento, Calif., Police Department on Nov. 20 for a live demonstration of the system inside a police building. Officers, firefighters, emergency medical professionals, dispatchers and unified command center operators worked together to respond to a virtual active-shooter event inside a model of the Sheraton Grand hotel in downtown Sacramento. In the game, terrorists had taken control of the building and the chaos started fires.

It was up to Sacramento’s finest to remediate the situation, while unified command center operators coordinated first responder activity.

Assistant Fire Chief Niko King told Fox40 news that EDGE forces law enforcement and emergency management divisions to start thinking about how they’d collaborate during real-life scenarios.

“It’s driving the conversations that need to take place. It takes a lot to go out and re-create something like this on the street, but to bring individuals to a controlled environment, to a room, and then create this chaos in the virtual world, it forces the training and thought process and conversations that need to take place,” he said.

Players must perform their specific functions in the game in order to complete the mission successfully. Firefighters, for example, use virtual extinguishers to put out flames. EDGE had a fire propagation model inside the virtual Sacramento hotel that could spread throughout the game unless players handled it.

Officer Todd Edgerton’s character got wounded in the game. He thought EDGE was useful to learn building layouts but said there were things in real-life police operations that a game just wouldn’t be able to capture. “I think it’d be good to train me for a building that I’ve never been in because I do have some familiarization now with parts [of the building] that I’ve never been in,” he said. “There’s stuff that I can’t do that I would do in a real tactical situation.”

The DHS and U.S. Army had spent roughly $15 million for EDGE’s development at the time of the demonstration. An additional pilot demonstration is planned for a simulated school shooting at a Sacramento district. If reception of these pilot demonstrations is positive enough, the federal government hopes to make EDGE available for all law enforcement agencies as an online service.
 

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer
Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.