A Trip to the Island

The “island” in the title is the Public Health Preparedness island that is part of the virtual world Second Life. The island is developed by the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Our collaborators at the Montgomery County Public Health Services organized a meeting this morning for some of their partners to see a demo of the Public Health Preparedness island. CADE has built on the island a hospital, a school, an urban neighborhood, and some other facilities for users to setup, visualize, and interact with others in mass vaccination and dispensing clinics (aka PODs). (This effort follows other projects by CADE to develop games for training public health professionals.)

A group of about 12 of us were in a conference room, watching a screen while one of the Montgomery County staff entered the island with her avatar. There were five other avatars on the island with her; controlling each one was someone from CADE. Each user could speak to the others, and we could hear anyone whose avatar was close to ours. The avatars moved through the island by walking, flying, or teleporting.

In some ways, it was like a normal tour: walk around the facility, see the place, and stand around asking questions and listening to the host’s answers. But of course we were seated in a conference room in Maryland, our hosts were in Illinois, and nothing on the the whole island was real.

Using a virtual POD means that one doesn’t have to go through the logistical challenge of setting up a real one to do an exercise, and there is a lot one can do in the virtual one. The island has been used for designing PODs, since one can setup every detail, including tables and signs, and then documenting the three-dimensional layout by creating snapshots or renderings for documentation. One can create and save different designs and switch them on or off as desired. It allows interactions and so one can do role-playing to train staff on how to deal with situations that may occur.

The limitations include the learning curve to become good at navigating and interacting with the virtual world and the limited number of avatars (30) that can be on the island at any point in time, though CADE is working on programming automated players (or “bots”) that can answer questions from a user. One can use immersive interfaces such as head-mounted displays or a CAVE, though that is not common according to the folks at CADE.

Advanced Practice Centers

Our research on public health preparedness modeling is funded directly by the Montgomery County, Maryland, Advanced Practice Center for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response. This APC is one of eight APCs supported by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). On the NACCHO web site is a map of the eight APCs, all of which are developing useful tools for public health emergency planners and information to share with the entire community.

A review of the APCs’ accomplishments shows that staffing during a disaster response is a common theme. The Seattle-King County (Washington) APC has developed plans for activating workforce to respond to a disaster.  The Santa Clara County (California) APC is working on plans to use medical volunteers to increase response capacity.  The Dekalb County (Georgia) APC has plans to use graduate students.

Mass Casualty Assessment

The latest addition to our list of public health preparedness models is a mass casualty assessment model called EMCAPS, created by researchers at the PACER center at Johns Hopkins University. According to the developers, “it is intended to allow users to model disaster scenarios for drill planning and to use as an education resource. The EMCAPS Model allows you to estimate casualties arising from biological (Anthrax, Plague, Food Contamination), chemical (blister, nerve and toxic agents) radiological (dirty bomb) or explosive (IED) attacks. These scenarios are based on the Department of Homeland Security Planning Scenarios (April 2005).” The software also includes the CDC FluSurge Model.

To use it, download the 32 megabyte ZIP file from the project web site. (There is no cost or login required.) It takes about five minutes to download, unzip the files, and run the setup program. Running the program gives you the opportunity to select a scenario and enter important values. For instance, in the anthrax scenario, you need values for quantity of release agent, line of release distance, population density, and dissemination efficiency. Some guidance is available for understanding the variables and selecting values (for example, it includes the population density of major U.S. cities). After you click on “Compute,” the software then quickly generates a one-page report showing how many casualties to expect on each day of the scenario. You can then change the values and ask it to recalculate.