virtual reality

Part of mastering the skills of a first responder is learning how to drive emergency vehicles in every condition. The Emergency Medical Service Institute, in partnership with UPMC, offered local police, firefighters and medics a realistic simulation of high-risk emergency driving scenarios. /Photos: Ken Lager

Not many writing assignments come with a barf bag, but this one did.

“Everyone loves it except the part where they get sick,” says Emergency Medical Technician Rick Weisner, of Medical Rescue Team South Authority.

Weisner, who trains MRTSA staff, was speaking of the large trailer in the ambulance company parking lot. Inside were two driving simulators designed for first responders. Called EMS Virtual Drive and sponsored by UPMC and the Emergency Medical Service Institute (EMSI), the $300,000 trailer provides a two-hour class to first responders.

But the “ride” can be a little disorienting, much like an amusement park simulator. Nausea, dizziness and the spins are to be expected. No one has actually hurled, but some have tapped out.

During the trailer’s fall visit to MRTSA, Mt. Lebanon medics, police and firefighters all had the opportunity to use the simulator. The classes were free.

One ambulance crashes every day in Pennsylvania, EMSI says. “Our goal is to create repetition throughout the emergency vehicle service operators throughout our region,” says Brian Shaw, EMSI deputy director.

Police Chief Aaron Lauth says the experience helps his officers. “With the training of today’s emergency driving simulators, scenarios can be created to replicate realistic situations,” he says. “These simulators also offer the opportunity for police officers to practice high-risk scenarios which are too dangerous to practice live. They are the perfect complement to the traditional on-track Emergency Vehicle Operator Course (EVOC) training that our officers participate in annually.”

EMS Virtual Drive offers 12 increasingly complex and difficult emergency driving situations that are too risky to practice on the road.

The first responders start the class watching a Power Point presentation and two short videos that give tips and explain how the simulators work.

The climate-controlled trailer, which uses nine computers to function, includes one control center and two driving simulators, each with three widescreen monitors. The driver’s seat features a seat belt and controls, from windshield wipers to lights to siren activation. “Everything functions here just like on a car,” he says. “You can even move the mirrors.” From the control center, Weisner loads the programs, starting with a simple 2-D scenario that lets the participant get the feel of the vehicle and moving through 12 progressively more difficult 3-D situations. He talks the drivers through the class, giving them hints and explaining what they’re supposed to be watching for. To learn how to teach, Weisner trained at EMSI in Robinson.

Programs are chock full of real-life hazards: unpredictable traffic, pedestrians, kids on bikes, fog, rain and snow, even airplane crashes and fires, allowing the drivers to practice safely. The simulator can be set up for an entire garage full of emergency vehicles, including SUVs, pumper trucks, ladder trucks, ambulances, tractor-trailers and police cars.

To demonstrate (after determining this writer recently had far too big a lunch to drive herself) Weisner gets in and starts the ignition for an ambulance on the first program. The screen looks like a video game as he drives through a flat town, stopping at stop signs and red lights. His speed appears in the middle of the screen. As he pulls up to a stop sign he flips a switch to show the aerial view so he knows how close he is to the curb. Pretty simple. But with the next scenario, everything is in 3-D. Headlights glare off the glass of neighboring buildings. Pedestrians dart about unpredictably.

On the next run, he gets into a police car in a snow storm. The car fishtails and the windshield wipers barely clear the view. He guns the engine and tries to fly through the streets but a red light thwarts his effort. Weisner finally has had enough and purposely crashes into a light pole. The windshield appears to break and the console reads “scenario over.” It sure is. Luckily, the barf bag stayed in the pouch the whole time.