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NIST-Funded Project to Create North Carolina AR Testbed

Nonprofit research group RTI International and the White Cross Fire Department have teamed up to pilot augmented reality technology for firetruck pump panel training. The goal is to create a blueprint for the industry.

A firefighter attaching a hose to the side of a firetruck.
A National Institute of Standards and Technology-backed project in North Carolina is hoping to create an augmented reality (AR) testbed for first responder training.

The effort will use AR technology to train firefighters to navigate truck pump panels, which control the flow of water from hydrants to hoses.

Emergency responders have begun to adopt this type of technology in training to evaluate its effectiveness and build on more traditional training methods. Because augmented and virtual scenarios allow for repeated training at little to no additional cost, departments are increasingly exploring expansion in this space.

This project, announced in August 2021 and led by RTI International and the White Cross Fire Department (WCFD), came naturally through head researcher Robert Furberg. Furberg is a research health informaticist at RTI and a firefighter at WCFD.

Backed by $750,000 in NIST funding, the RTI team will develop the AR training, which will rely on Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 goggles to offer self-contained holographic visuals.

According to Furberg, there is often a divide between technology developers and first responders in this space. For that reason, this project focused heavily on including the insight of first responders in creating the technology those in this field can use.

The goal, he said, was encouraging AR developers to take a responder-centered design approach to create technologies that are easily adoptable.

One of the ways this was accomplished was through working with a panel of five subject matter experts with considerable fire service experience to bring that knowledge into the creation of an AR product for pump panel training.

In all, the project is expected to take up to two years to complete.

WCFD Chief Phillip Nasseri highlighted the importance of close collaboration with the nonprofit, as the research group did not have extensive knowledge of fire department processes.

According to Nasseri, the traditional process of pump panel training was lecture-based, with a combination of PowerPoint and hands-on scenarios. The hope with AR technology is that individuals will be able to train in a way that involves the senses to improve muscle memory. Although developers were initially focused primarily on the visuals, Nasseri underlined the importance of including sound because it could help individuals to improve memory recall under stress.

Nasseri also noted that because a lot of volunteers and staff speak English as a second language, offering additional languages for the training helped the product meet the department’s needs.

Although not all members of the fire department were familiar with using AR technology, Nasseri said both younger and older members have responded positively to the opportunity to train with the goggles.

Furberg said that when he formulated the proposal, the focus was not on developing a new product but rather on creating a set of resources and recommendations to help AR applications in this space.

“At the end of the day, we want to have a road map for the development and adoption of these technologies,” said Furberg.

This road map will include a consistent set of best practice recommendations, a library of resources, and guidance for fire departments to use when adopting these technologies. In addition, it was important to have procedures in place to evaluate the products’ effectiveness as they enter the market.

“AR technologies are transformative,” Furberg said. “And I think as first responders are exposed to a growing number of data inputs, there needs to be better guidance in place — both for AR developers and service adopters — to ensure these technologies are being used well.”

He also suggested the possibility of expanding this project at the end of the two-year period, stating that RTI’s approach to evaluating usability of new technologies can serve as an effective way of benchmarking new products.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.