Virtual Worlds, Social Networks Provide Brave New World for Emergency Training
Ramesh Ramloll loves to play online. He posts on Facebook and moves avatars through Second Life. He tweets on Twitter, connects on LinkedIn and plugs into Plaxo. Trolling the world of Web 2.0 has helped Ramloll harness the power of virtual worlds, online social networks and other nooks-and-crannies of the Internet to provide better training for health care and emergency-service providers.
Ramloll and his colleagues at Idaho State University’s Institute of Rural Health have been in the business of providing virtual trainings for emergency personnel for the past several years, primarily through its Play2Train platform. Play2Train was developed with support from the Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program and is an online, three-dimensional, interactive virtual environment that is based in SecondLife, a virtual world with millions of subscribers.
“Play2Train is not real life, but it can be the next best thing,” said Ramloll, Play2Train’s founder. “By providing a virtual replica of real places and objects, Play2Train imparts a sense of plausibility within the virtual setting, allowing immersion of the participants in the virtual scenarios. Play2Train provides opportunities for collaborative learning and allows geographically dispersed stakeholders to participate in a common learning effort, with much less costs and minimal disruptions in workflows.”
The IRH, in the ISU Kasiska College of Health Professions, sees Play2Train as an example of “serious play,” where programmers use gaming technology — similar to that used in “SimCity” games, “HALO” and “World of Warcraft” — and apply it to serious applications. Participants create avatars for themselves to enter into the virtual realm, where they can interact with other participants in “live” or “real-time” exercises. One benefit of Play2Train is people don’t have to travel to a training site; they need only login to a virtual site.
Last October, the ISU Institute of Rural Health partnered with Bingham Memorial Hospital to produce a pandemic flu triage exercise using Play2Train in a virtual hospital created by Ramloll. Participants included personnel from the hospital, IRH, Blackfoot Fire Department and the Blackfoot Police Department. In all, 20 emergency response personnel at several different sites participated in the three-hour exercise.
“It is the first time that I know of that medical personnel held a pandemic influenza emergency preparation exercise in a virtual environment,” Ramloll said. “The response to the exercise was very positive. One of the participants from Bingham said they would have had to lock down the hospital to complete an exercise of this scale in real life.”
The exercise was an opportunity to test Bingham Memorial Hospital’s current pandemic influenza plans. The participants, through their avatars, played out their expected roles and responsibilities in the virtual setting.
The IRH is now using Play2Train while working with a large hospital in southern California. Ramloll does not offer many details on this project because of privacy agreements, but said that it is on a much grander scale than previous exercises and it sets the groundwork for similar ventures.
But Play2Train isn’t the only tool in the ISU Institute of Rural Health’s virtual and online toolbox. The IRH has launched Rocky Mountain Learning, a consulting service that aims to “provide live person-to-person interaction without the cost of travel, lodging, facility rental or additional presentation expenses.”
Rocky Mountain Learning can assist health and emergency preparedness organizations setup webinars and other online services, including using Play2Train. It provides online registration, evaluation and quiz applications for each session, links and downloads of the curriculum needed for each session and moderation of each session from introductions to closing remarks. It can host up to 1,000 participants at a time, while providing online hosting and technical support, and can record and archive sessions for later use.
“There are other less expensive and better ways to connect these days than through traditional conferences,” Ramloll said. “We understand the landscape of the technologies out there, from distance-learning technologies and simulation technologies to social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, and we want to share our expertise in connecting people.”