Austin (TX) Using Virtual Reality Training

VR training in action.
VR training in action. (Image/Austin-Travis EMS)

The City of Austin has partnered with local startup Augmented Training Systems to develop two virtual reality training programs for first responders. The virtual reality trainings focus on high-acuity, low-frequency events that EMS personnel train for, but do not frequently respond to, such as mass casualty events and the use of the ambulance bus.

“A first responder will get trained on these skills and then not respond to a disaster for a number of years. A ‘just in time’ VR training allows us to refresh those skills quickly, without needing the physical equipment or set-up. We can do the training at the station, or at home, and can repeat the training over and over,” said Commander Keith Noble, of Austin-Travis County EMS (ATCEMS).

“I’m a social scientist and value metrics and outcomes. So, when we started this work, it was important to understand the traditional training and then identify what could we do better for first responders,” said Dr. Scott Smith, president of Augmented Training Systems. ATCEMS Commander Noble said that when developing the training, “We targeted expensive, infrequent trainings. Mass casualty event training is expensive, you have to schedule physical assets and budget for staff overtime. Normally, that is something that can occur at most once or twice a year.”

Virtual reality training became even more relevant as the COVID-19 crisis changed our day-to-day environment. “During the COVID-19 crisis, in-person events and hands-on trainings have mostly been canceled. For first responders, it’s not an option to postpone training. We have to be ready to respond to a crisis, no matter what,” said Commander Noble. “This technology is a good fit for today’s environment where we’re doing everything virtually. It’s safe and it’s effective.”

The development of virtual reality training began more than a year ago through a public-private partnership between the City’s Communication and Technology Management (CTM) department, ATCEMS and a grant from US Ignite. US Ignite aims to partner local governments with financial investments to serve as a catalyst for innovation for smart city services powered by new technologies.

CTM data architect, Ted Lehr helped to bring the grant opportunity to EMS. “Part of my job with the City is to focus on emerging technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence and to identify opportunities for partnerships and resources within the community. In this case, I was able to bring together researchers from Texas State University and ATCEMS using this grant opportunity to introduce VR as a training option,” said Lehr.

Augmented Training Systems, a local startup, was born out of the collaboration. Augmented Training Systems, with the support of ATCEMS, developed two virtual trainings, a ‘just in time’ training on the ambulance bus and mass casualty event training. These trainings focus on critical, high acuity skills for low frequency events like disaster response. Testing during the development of the virtual reality training showed a higher recall of skills and mission-critical tasks, a reduction in errors, and a decrease in time it took to complete a task for trainees that took the virtual training versus those that took just in person training.

“The platform allows you to track training and accuracy of performance. It also introduces elements of gamification and repetition, both of which help with knowledge retention and skill recall,” said Smith. “Augmented Training Systems did the science, which is an important part in all of this. They did the research, showing that this can improve our training, especially when added to physical trainings. It can be done more frequently, more cheaply, and at the convenience and even desire of the first responders,” said Lehr.

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