A virtual-reality emergency-response training system—currently
being designed for the Army National Guard—could gain wider
use within the Defense Department to prepare troops for homeland
The system is called the virtual emergency response training simulation
(VERTS). It has been in the works for about three years and the
plan was to make it available to National Guard and Army Reserve
weapons of mass destruction-civil support teams—units that
help domestic authorities in responding to terrorist attacks involving
nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. The Army plans to make
the system available to local first responders—fire, police,
emergency medical and HazMat units.
The program initially was managed by the Army Simulation Training
and Instrumentation Command, but it was subsequently transferred
to the Maneuver Support Center, in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
That post also is home to the U.S. Army Chemical School. The service
so far has spent about $4 million on the program.
VERTS currently is “going through the requirements process,”
said Eddie Nagel, program manager at the Army Maneuver Support Center.
So far, it is only a prototype system, he said. “We don’t
know when the fielding will take place.”
He said the program could be accelerated, given the heightened
state of alert in the United States after the September terrorist
attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. However, Nagel said his
office had not been informed by higher authorities about specific
plans for speeding up development. “There has to be a decision-making
authority, at the OSD [office of the defense secretary] level.”
As originally conceived, the Army would produce four VERTS prototypes
that would be linked in a distributed learning environment, enabling
dispersed units to train together. The program combines conventional
classroom training, interactive courses, performance tools, and
live, virtual and constructive simulations.
VERTS would provide realistic, virtual, urban environments that
can be used in real time by trainees interacting in a free-play
scenario using standard PCs and existing networks.
IDA, the Institute for Defense Analyses, is responsible for developing
“virtual cities,” or realistic models of major U.S.
cities for use in the trainer. Last year, for example, a simulation
of Los Angeles was used by local law-enforcement officials to prepare
security plans for the Democratic National Convention.
One of the virtual-city models developed for VERTS was a digital
representation of the World Trade Center garage, which was expected
to be targeted again, after the 1993 bombing.
A VERTS suite includes two virtual-reality “immersion”
training stations. The entire suite occupies about 1,500 to 2,000
square feet. Inside the stations, trainees wear chemical suits.
They also are outfitted with detection sensors, radios and sampling
Outside the immersion station, students in separate cubicles can
interact—via computers—with the trainees inside the
stations. The students can participate in the exercise through so-called
“avatars”—virtual characters controlled by joysticks.
Avatars can be created to simulate real-life crowds, other biological/chemical
teams, casualties or enemy forces. The chief trainer controls the
exercise from a “battlemaster” station. The trainees
and trainer communicate via radio.
Robert L. Clover, an IDA engineer, briefed experts on the virtual
cities project last November, during the annual simulation industry
symposium sponsored by the National Training Systems Association.
In a paper published at the conference, Clover noted that, “We
are all experiencing some pain in learning how to deal with these
complex synthetic environments [of the virtual cities].”
The VERTS synthetic urban environments are created from a wide
variety of source data—ranging from “accurate geographic
information system (GIS) files to in-house generated data where
information was of poor quality, missing or not captured,”
The basic source-data products needed to create an urban area for
VERTS include overhead photography, digital elevation models, street
centerlines, curb lines, alleys, medians, sidewalks, parking lots,
parking islands, delivery areas, building footprints, building heights,
bridges and tunnels, surface and sub-surface rail.
Some cities have updated 6-inch resolution overhead imagery, Clover
said, while others still have old imagery with 2-feet resolution
or worse. Two-feet resolution, he explained, “is not good
enough to permit us to accurately identify and place small items
such as fire plugs, newspaper boxes, street lights, shrubbery, etc.”
The database modeling computer tool used for virtual cities is
called TerraTools, made by TerraSIM, Inc.
The Army also developed VERTS semi-automated forces, to model various
entities in the battlefield, such as chemical, biological agents,
environmental spills, plumes, humans, vehicles and weather conditions.
These entities are part of an Army program that develops computer-generated
forces, called OneSaf, or one semi-automated force.
To make the virtual city models more useful for homeland defense,
they could be used to predict the direction and scope of a biological
or chemical attack, based on the wind conditions and the locations
of buildings, said Dennis Jones, program manager for ITT Defense
simulation and training division. “The next step is to predict
where the hazards will go within a city, in the same run-time parameters,”
said Jones in an interview.
ITT is not involved in the VERTS program, but has been a long-time
contractor to the Defense Department for NBC simulations (nuclear,
chemical and biological). These technologies, so far, have been
largely unavailable to homeland defense agencies, because of their
high cost, said Jones. “Homeland-defense local agencies can’t
afford [chemical-biological] simulations,” he said. A high-fidelity
virtual-reality simulation for interactive training, he said, can
cost several million dollars to develop and install.
“If I have to simulate behaviors of individuals, I can spend
a boatload of money to model that,” Jones said.
During the past seven years, ITT received more than $30 million
in Defense Department contracts to develop simulations of chemical
and biological environments, protection systems, sensors and electronic
alert messaging. Most of the contract awards were by the U.S. Army
and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
ITT’s simulations have been used to test chemical detectors,
for example. “We support R&D [research and development]
of the systems, prior to building them,” said Jones. Other
virtual simulations are designed to train the sensor operators.
Simulations can help to predict where the [gas] plume is headed,
he explained. “But it’s not used in an operational sense,
where a commander may use the simulation to plan strategy.”
These types of simulations are not “predictive” tools,
but rather provide information to “stimulate the sensors,
whether it’s a live sensor or a model of a sensor,”
Data from NBC simulations could help predict casualties from a
chemical attack, but that is not what the system was designed to
do. The current simulations only are for open battlefield scenarios,
not urban locations.
ITT recently built a high-fidelity virtual trainer for Army biological
standoff detection system, a helicopter-mounted laser device designed
by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The trainer was
intended to help Army officers develop “tactics, techniques
and procedures” to operate the system, said Jones.
The company also has worked on modeling terrorist and counter-proliferation
scenarios. The models are used to provide answers to “what
if” situations, such as whether a truck colliding with a loaded
bomber on a runway would cause bomb detonation (and for what combination
of conditions), how would typical weather patterns spread contaminants
from a terrorist device, or how effective different types of weapons
are in attacking and defeating a buried bunker.
“While these capabilities have been applied to a number of
conventional engineering problems, the main application for these
models is in counter-proliferation, force protection, anti-terrorist
and weapon system safety assessment studies,” said a company