Dartmouth Medicine HomeCurrent IssueAbout UsContact UsSearchPodcasts

Counterterrorism training for first-responders

DMS's master of interactive media, Professor of Community and Family Medicine Joseph Henderson, M.D., is at it again. This time he is training his arsenal of video simulation expertise at terrorism.

Incidents: With support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Henderson's group is working on the first offering in an eventual series of educational CD-ROMs for first-responders to terrorist incidents—police, firefighters, and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel.

The program is being designed to deliver core knowledge applicable to all three fields— about such topics as hazardous materials (known as "hazmats"), including nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological, explosive, or incendiary devices—as well as specialized training particular to each field.

For a recently released CD on clinical genetics, Henderson's group created a virtual "clinic" in which the trainee can interview a "patient," confer with a "colleague," or attend a "lecture." This new project is being cast as a "Virtual Terrorism Response Academy." The Academy's faculty consists of top experts— who are represented by video clips—from the law enforcement, firefighting, EMS, and hazmat fields.

Encounter: If you log onto the program as a police officer, for example, you encounter a law enforcement faculty member who takes you in tow. This mentor explains the resources available to you, such as lectures, descriptions of the experiences of other first-responders, and links to Web resources.

Exposure: The mentor then introduces you to the HazMat Learning Lab. One of the exercises there involves the effects of time, distance from the source, and shielding on your radiological exposure. As you approach the source of radiation, the intensity of your exposure—indicated on a virtual Geiger counter —increases.

You can interpose different kinds of shielding between yourself and the source to learn what the most efficient protection is in different circumstances. The effect of the duration of your exposure is also shown on simulated instrumentation. After a series of exercises of that type, you are then invited to take an examination. A trainee who passes is allowed to enter the secure "Simulation Area."

Complicated and spooky: There, things quickly become more complicated and even a little spooky. You hear a 911 call reporting a possible threat of terrorist activity, and you listen as the dispatcher mobilizes the appropriate personnel. You must then plan the best route to the site—a building located in an old industrial park.

As your team approaches the building, a crow caws in the background (in some societies crows are an omen of danger or evil). A Geiger counter shows that there is significant radiation coming from the building. A peek through the windows reveals many bags of fertilizer. Another room looks something like a laboratory. A portable radio on the lab bench is tuned to a weather station and plays eerily on and on. Not a living soul seems to be around.

It's time to enter the building, but first your team checks the door carefully for booby traps. Once inside, you find that the radiation intensity is much higher. Let's turn off that pesky radio, you think. Suddenly, the computer screen goes white. That was a big mistake—the radio was booby-trapped. This is not going to help your final score on the simulation!

Dirty bomb: But you still have to figure out what all the evidence means. It looks as if many of the ingredients for a dirty bomb are present, but where could it be planted? As you agonize over the possibilities, the simulation moves on to an even more complicated scenario.

But it's all just an elaborate video game, isn't it? Well, yes and no. Certainly the technology is similar to that used in video games, but the purpose of this exercise is quite different.

Video games are playthings, intended for amusement and fantasy. The CD-ROMs that are produced by Dartmouth's Interactive Media Lab are deadly serious tools, intended for education and training. They contain factual information from the best minds in the field—and may someday save lives in a dangerous world.

Roger P. Smith, Ph.D.

If you would like to offer any feedback about this article, we would welcome getting your comments at DartMed@Dartmouth.edu.

Back to Vital Signs

Dartmouth Medical SchoolDartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterWhite River Junction VAMCNorris Cotton Cancer CenterDartmouth College