Newt Virtual Reality Journey for Digital EOC - Week 1
Welcome to my “old dog learning new tricks” adventure. I’m going to spend the next few months sharing with you the journey that I take as I learn some emerging technology that will (hopefully) enable me to take my 35+ years of operational experience in emergency management and marry it up with a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality. That combo is called mixed reality.
I’m both blessed and cursed with a strong systems thinking ability, which is just a fancy way of saying I can connect a lot of dots at once. I’ve also been leveraging some skills and knowledge around strategic foresight that I have developed over the years from reading and attending a course at the University of Houston. I have a bit of a vision around where all this technology can go, initially in the training and exercising world.
My name is Steve Newton. I turned 60 a little while ago and nothing fell off, so that’s a good thing. In this first blog post, I will share a bit about my background so you can have some context around where I come from, and how I landed on the ground floor of a very cool technological opportunity. In future posts, I will share my weekly learnings and progress with this tool, and show you what I’m up to. As things progress in this Digital EOC project, I am sure that you will have your own “aha” and “I wonder if…” moments. So here’s a bit about where I come from.
Back in 1988 I decided to go to university to get a university education. For some reason back then, I thought I would be a lawyer when I grew up. A couple of interesting family interactions with lawyers later, and I changed my mind. I liked sales and thought marketing would be a fun career, so I switched streams over to business administration. Plus, I didn’t really like math and I naively figured that there wouldn’t be any math in marketing. Boy oh boy did I miss the boat on that one. Stats and calculus and more stats and calculus. Throw in a bit of operations management for good measure, and I was up to my eyeballs in math. But I made it through the 4 year program. The upside was that in order to pay for university, I had chosen a summer job in British Columbia wildfire operations.
I got my start in helicopter initial attack and rappel. What a cool time that was. I would start dreaming every night about helicopters in early January and my mindset was firmly focused each summer on wildfire. In the early 90’s I spend 6 summers running a 20 person unit crew, which our friends in the US commonly refer to as “hotshot” crews. Again, more fun and life long friendships were built. And back then I was about 45 pounds lighter, with legs of steel and hardly cracked a sweat on my daily 15 kilometre runs.
Because I was absolutely passionate about wildfire and I was pursuing an education that lent well to leadership and management, I managed to transition from summer employment to full time; and so my career in broader emergency management begun. From 1996-98 I did a 2 year stint as a wildfire technician, which introduced me to incident command and elements of the 4 pillars of emergency management.
In 1998 I competed for what we called back then a Fire Zone Manager position; I am proud to say at that time I was the youngest Fire Zone Manager in BC. I did it primarily to see where I would land at that level of job competition so I could get some insights into what I would need to focus on for the next few years to eventually land one of those positions. Back then, it was a pretty common practice for the young folks to go north to get their experience and eventually transfer or promote down to the premium locations in the south, closer to retirement. But I got the job and it was one of the best zones in the province for learning large fire behaviour and management. From 1998 to 2007 I ran the Lillooet Fire Zone with a seasonal compliment of 54 fire crew staff and, at that point in time, some of the more interesting large fires in the province.
During that time I also got a few other things into my personal career development. Apparently I demonstrated a strong interest in technology so I was invited to participate as the only field crew rep on a tech project called Real Time Emergency Mangagement vi Satellite (REMSAT). (It was jointly funded by the European and Canadian Space Agencies. Lots of long days and weekends, but it was worth it…at least from my perspective. My ex-wife who hardly saw me…not so much for her. But this gave me great exposure to the Canadian wildfire world, and to this day my network of trust based relationships is very extensive. I have lots of cool people on speed dial. Plus, I got to do a presentation to the European Space Agency folks in Holland, and the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Technology (I hope I got that right) brought me to Chile as a keynote speaker and one of their international events.
A little less sexier, but equally as fun, I also got to have a hand in some of the initial ICS based transformations and subsequent training development. Add in a little bit of bastardized Spanish speaking and that landed me in Mexico on a fun training project for a couple of weeks. I was also very fortunate to be the only field operations type that was selected to participate in a 2 month project in Sabah, Malaysia where we basically build their entire state wildfire operations program. I had a key role in legislation development, creating their prevention program, and some operational training. During my Lillooet years, I also spend some time as Incident Commander as well as Ops and Plans chiefs on Type 1 and 2 Incident Management Teams, and got to see several areas of Canada.
In 2009 I took a 1 year temporary assignment into our provincial wildfire aviation program as the Superintendent of Aviation Management. That evolved into a 4 year gig, during which time I was responsible for all things provincial rotary wing operations, aviation safety, and fleet procurement. All that statistics training I got in university actually did pay off. I did some pretty interesting analysis work around fixed wing air tankers, and was able to demonstrate that the AT802 Fire Boss, when managed properly were a very operationally and cost-effective for water delivery. I recently read a newly published paper that reinforced that initial research.
I also did some interesting analysis around the use of heavy lift rotary wing. We tried an interesting pilot project where we paired a Kamov KA-32 with a rotary wing bird dog aircraft and officer, and deployed to do initial attack on remote wildfires. The initial analysis that I had done suggested that if we used heavy RW for aggressive initial attack within the first two operational periods then final fire sizes were smaller, and total suppression costs were considerably lower. What made this work in our pilot project was that the Kamov carried a “rolagon” bladder on a long line with enough fuel to give it 8 hours flight time at site. It would drop that bladder in a logging landing somewhere close to the fire and refuel. Turns out we were spending an awful lot of money flying those expensive helicopters back to airports and fuel bowsers and losing almost an hour of operational bucketing on every fuel cycle. Turns out I was several years ahead of my time on this one, but maybe one day someone will revisit this approach.
I only add these two examples (and there are more) in to reinforce the notion that I also tried to be a bit innovative in my time. When I had good supervisors, I had lots of freedom to do interesting and cool things. When I didn’t, I had to get a bit “creative” to get things done. I once paid for the development of a flight simulator on a series of $999 invoices so that I didn’t exceed the financial approval limits, but that’s a different story for a different time.
In 2011, I was starting to notice some trends that got me thinking a bit more about future opportunities. For example, I was noticing things like the increasing complexities and catastrophic impacts of large wildfires in Australia and California. Even the good old days of a 3000 hectare wildfire out in the middle of nowhere with no threat to communities were starting to give way to the more frequent wildland urban interface threat. More floods & landslides were happing. When I put this all together, I was seeing that multi-agency events were on the increase, so I thought I should learn a bit more about what all that meant outside of the wildfire world.
So I took a 1 year temporary assignment as a Regional Manager in our provincial government agency Emergency Management BC (EMBC). I figured I should get to understand that organization and know more people in the broader emergency management game. My thinking then was that with all the increasing complexities, there was a good likelihood that the BC Wildfire Service and EMBC would combine into one organization at some point. In fact I was a big proponent of that, given my experiences in both organizations. Once again, I was a few years ahead of my time but I still think it will happen in the not-too-distant future.
That temp assignment turned into a 7 year career at EMBC. As a Regional Manager, my day job focused on providing subject matter expertise and operational support to local governments and First Nation communities during emergency events. I loved that part of the job for sure as I was leveraging relationships developed in my earlier wildfire years, many of which are still strong to this day. And I did a few other cool things.
For example, I was given the provincial EMBC aviation portfolio when I got there full time. One of my earliest “aha” moments, or perhaps more appropriately “oh no” moments, was when I discovered what the provincial emergency management legislation said about responsibilities for aviation management during large events. It was obvious right from the start that there was no plan in place and that at best, EMBC was going to expect the BC Wildfire aviation folks to do what they do best on wildfires. Given my previous experience in wildfire aviation, I can say with absolute certainty that they are the best trained and equipped aviation management organization in the provincial government, but that at that point in time there was a huge gap in their operational knowledge around working with other provincial and federal aviation fleets. So I went and got $1M from a federal funding source and put together a multi-agency federal team and together, we built a provincial aviation management plan for large catastrophic events. Naturally, there was a tech play in that, but I also did some interesting stuff around common operating pictures as well.
At one point in my EMBC career, a couple of my old REMSAT friends from Simon Fraser University were doing some work in support of NASA’s research into data communications for the first manned flight to Mars. I helped them put together a multi-day exercise in our region. They invited some local tech start-ups to participate, and one had a tool that caught my attention. In fact, one of the first things I said to the owner of the company was “you know what you have here don’t you? You have that elusive common operating picture that everyone in emergency management has been looking for”. They have expanded that tool into some pretty interesting international opportunities around automation and data integration, but they still have a good play in emergency management.
So to start bringing this home a bit, in May 2018 I “retired” out of the Provincial government after a full and very rewarding career in wildfire and emergency management operations. I took everyone out for drinks (not a cheap undertaking by any stretch of the imagination) on a Thursday night, got a call Friday at noon, and was billing my first client on that next Monday morning. And it hasn’t stopped since.
I have a small consulting company called Innomergence Solutions. We have focused most of our work around operational and strategic planning for local governments and First Nation organizations. Again, this has been very rewarding. And as a by-product of my systems thinking, strategic foresight, operational experience, and interests in innovation, we have developed some good content and business practices that lend very well to some of today’s emerging technologies.
I made a point from the very first client project we ever did that we would only engage in projects that helped us develop business practices that would eventually enable truly digital emergency plans. For a very long time, I have been noticing trends that pointed towards that. Simple things like the confluence of technologies: 5G, low earth orbit satellites, systems automations, quantum computing, virtual reality, augmented reality, wearables, artificial intelligence to name a few. So everything we did for clients contributed in some way to an end game, yet to be confirmed, that said to me “digital eoc” and “digital emergency plan”.
So that brings us to this journey that I am now embarking on, and that I am sharing with you. In November 2022 I met a fellow from a small tech start-up that had just spun out of the University of Toronto Neurosciences department. This team is really, really smart. In their PhD work, they have been doing some interesting stuff around data capture and decision making. Basically, they put a bunch of sensors on a person’s head and then capture the data to make sense of. But they’re doing something a little bit…or a lot…different.
It turns out that in order to create conditions for capture of brain activity data for decision making, they built a software tool that sits on top of a very dominant virtual reality online gaming platform. What they’ve done is bleeding edge for sure, but when I first saw it I had yet another “aha” moment. But this one was more significant to me than others because I have spent the last 3 years trying to piece together the knowledge and tools to create training and exercising for emergency management in a virtual environment. I’ve taught myself a few of the popular tools that are out there. That said, there is now a gazillion of them and more coming every day it seems.
So when I saw what they had one of the first things I said to them is “this is exactly what I’ve been looking for these past 3 years, to enable a vision I’ve had for over 10 years". I was, and still am, definitely in my happy place. So I worked out a deal with them and we’re working on a product that other experts have offered is light years ahead of where everyone else is at. Technically speaking, I don’t know exactly what that means. But generally speaking, this lends very, very well to how my brain is wired. I see an opportunity to transform how training and exercising can be done in emergency management…and beyond…way beyond that.
I will reveal more details as this blog progresses. It is my self-imposed journey to learn how to use their tool, and share with you weekly what that look like. I’ve set up a LinkedIn Group specifically for this initial journey and I intend to invite a whole bunch of people to be part of that. Some will want to follow what I’m doing, but it is my deepest hope that some will want to participate in the development of this tool. Kind of like a blended community of practice/mentorship/marketing focus group sort of a thing. I’m figuring this out as I go along, and I am smart enough to know what I don’t know, and when to reach out for guidance from others who know way more than me.
So if you are in the emergency management world, this might be for you. If you are in the mixed reality development world, this also might be for you. If you are just an early tech adopter, then this might also be for you as well.
This isn’t a sales pitch. I’m not going to try to sell you anything…at least not yet, because we don’t really have anything yet to sell. With your help, maybe in the future.
Here’s how you can get involved. We have a LinkedIn Group called Digital EOC set up. It's our first time managing a LinkedIn Group so please bear with us until we figure this out. Join that group and please share your thoughts, ideas and guidance there as we move through this journey. At the end of the day, this tool will only work if it provides some value to users.
If the LinkedIn thing doesn't work for you, please feel free to engage here in the comments section of this blog post. I only ask that you be respectful and contribute to our learning, and that of others who are following. I will remove any comments that are blatantly spammy, promotional and/or that don't contribute to the learning journey.
Click here to see the Digital EOC LinkedIn Group.