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How Virtual Reality and BIM Aid Disaster Response

Any disaster, whether it’s natural—like a hurricane, wildfire or flood—or man-made, such as 9/11, brings out the best in humanity. Suddenly, we overcome our differences and simply see fellow people in need.

OCR (Operation Convergent Response) is an annual event sponsored by Verizon and Nokia that takes place at Guardian Center in Perry, Georgia. The event is a series of exercises designed to test new technology and train first responders. The mock exercises include an attack on critical infrastructure, a wildfire, a nighttime gas pipeline explosion, a hostage situation, and a tunnel collapse emergency.

OCR and Oracle Aconex Model Coordination

A few months ago, I was at the Oracle Industries Innovation Lab with Oracle Construction and Engineering’s innovation officer, Burcin Kaplanoglu. Burcin asked if I could brainstorm how we could support OCR and the tunnel emergency exercise where we were invited to demonstrate the value of Oracle Aconex Model Coordination and virtual reality in construction.

I thought it’d be beneficial for first responders to “enter” the tunnel via virtual reality to familiarize themselves with their surroundings prior to physically entering for search, rescue, and recovery operations.

How virtual reality can help first responders

As it turned out, the exercise proved as valuable for us in the planning stages as it would for the responders in delivery. Here’s a quick interview with Battalion Fire Chief James Alligood and Burcin after the first day. Without prompting, Chief Alligood validated everything we suspected virtual reality might offer first responders regarding time and safety in critical situations.

Each scenario, which occurred three times daily for three days, played out like this: A bus arrives with visitors from various tech, city, state, military, and first responder backgrounds, all of whom are visiting specific mock exercises of their choosing. The visitors step off the bus for a tour of the facility and the technology being used onsite.

Responding to disasters with model coordination

As OCR participants enter the tent, we share what they’ll see from a technology perspective and why it’s important in the field. Along with Oracle Aconex and a construction model of the tunnel, we point out our PlumBox. This is a vendor outfitted Pelican case with electronics and small antennas, our ‘Internet-in-a-box’. The PluBox provides a wi-fi signal that’s beamed from an overhead aircraft circling the Guardian Center above us all day, communicating by satellite. 

Suddenly, on queue, the tunnel team is signaled followed by an abrupt series of explosions, smoke, and screams. After the sound of the first explosion in the tunnel collapse, there’s a massive recording of a building collapsing that’s blasted from a set of speakers, causing the crowd to jump.

Modeling a tunnel collapse in 3D

Next, two men emerge from the tunnel yelling and run through the crowd for someone to call 911. It feels very real. The facility launches into multiple explosions, including gunfire, before a helicopter arrives with six special ops SWAT team members hanging off the side.

The chopper lands on a roof next to us. It makes the hair on your arms stand up the first few times. Within minutes, Chief Alligood races up in an emergency vehicle and makes his way into our tent. The crowd parts to let him in.

Chief Alligood asks for an update, and we show him a 3D model of the tunnel and note our present location. We put the virtual reality headset on him. We’ve updated the 3D model to reflect what we forecast Chief Alligood will encounter when he enters based on camera footage from inside the tunnel and intel from other sources we’ve just received.

We have modeled the complete facility, including the tunnel, in a matter of weeks, and it’s simply a matter of adding more crashed cars based on the photographs. A new model reflecting this is uploaded and we inform Chief Alligood, at his request, which cars have people trapped inside, points of entry and egress, and locations of air handler units.

Chief Alligood races through the tunnel from end to end and looks at the roof. He removes his headset and walks toward the tunnel entrance with 40 fascinated, albeit slightly shaken, visitors following along. The crowd witnesses first-hand search and rescue ops, smoke, hazardous spills, and more technology than you can imagine.

Smart lights, drones, mechanical snakes, and more

Smart lights with embedded cameras send live video streaming to a command center a mile away. A drone flies in and drops a sensor after a mechanical snake has autonomously slithered down the tunnel beaming back video and detecting poisonous gasses.

The sensor dropped by the drone is hurled down the tunnel and reports the hazardous condition in seconds. A Verizon emergency response team and two Macon-Bibb firefighters suddenly appear dressed in full hazmat suits with air tanks and body cameras.

Finally, the crowd of visitors emerge from an exit 100 meters down the tunnel to get a debrief of everything they’ve just witnessed from the exhibitors. They appear relieved and quite impressed by what they’ve seen.

When the smoke subsides, the attendees clearly understand how many things can go wrong, even in training, but that’s the whole point. We’ll never eliminate disasters, but if we can help those who help us, such as first responders, we’ve done a great thing. It’s not just seconds or minutes we are saving in this case—it’s someone’s life.

Watch the full interview with Kaplanoglu and Verizon’s Solutions Architect Jeffrey Schweitzer.

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