The Digital EOC Journey - Week 2
Okay, so here’s where I start getting into a bit more detail about my journey. If you haven’t read my first blog in this series, you may want to do that. It will give you some context around who I am, and why I’m doing this. Basically, I’m a 60-something emergency management practitioner with over 35 years of operational experience who is trying to marry that up with some bleeding edge mixed reality (virtual reality + augmented reality) to develop the next generation of virtual training and exercising. From what I’ve experienced to date on this journey, the first terms to come to mind are “transformational” and “game-changing”. I hope that becomes more apparent to you as well as you follow my blogs in the next few months, and maybe even become engaged in providing me your guidance. And the bonus for me is that it lends very well to my vision for a truly Digital EOC.
The way this works is that each week I publish a bit of a summary of what I’ve been up to the previous week. What I’ve learned. What my challenges have been. And where I see all this going. And I will invite you to share your experience and guidance in the hopes that collectively, we can evolve this to something that is truly that transformational game-changer that I think it can be. I promise you it will be me doing the writing, and not some AI tool that is all the rage. By doing that, it is my hope that over time some of you may even become part of my network of peers. Strength in numbers and all that good stuff. But those of you in the emergency management world will absolutely know the value of your network. Who you can call at “0’dark thirty” knowing that they will have your back. My network is still growing daily and maybe, just maybe, it’s a good network for some of you.
So let’s dig into this a bit more. In my first blog, I laid out who I was and how I got to this point. Basically, I met some really smart people in the neurosciences research world with an interesting software tool that I think can change the way we deliver training and exercising in emergency management. They have a neurotech start-up that came together with some students in the neurosciences program at the University of Toronto. The company is called Silico Labs. They built a tool for designing conditional events to capture decision making data so they could work their neuroscience magic on it. Basically, you can build interactive training in a virtual and/or augmented reality environment. That doesn’t mean you have to run out and drop $3500 USD on the new Apple Vision Pro virtual reality headset when it comes out. This will work equally as well on any computer or mobile device. It will still be cool, but just not the same as if you’re engaging it in a 3D world in a VR headset.
In my view, this tool is excellent for developing training scenarios and delivering them in a virtual environment. There’s some pretty compelling literature that suggests higher knowledge retention rates when learners are engaged in virtual environments. It makes sense when you think a bit about how humans learn. We can watch all the videos and read all the books we want, but we don’t really start to makes sense of and understand things until we start doing them. Virtual environments, when done correctly, greatly enhance that sense making by amplifying the senses of sight, sound, and to some degree touch through motions you make when interacting with virtual activities. If you spend a bit of time searching the internet, you won’t have to look too far to see that virtual and augmented reality on their own are making good inroads into emergency management training and exercising. Combined into a mixed reality world only serves to amplify that opportunity.
The virtual environment that we are using is powered by the Unity Gaming platform, which is currently a dominant company in the online multi-player gaming world. Unity is also positioning itself to be a dominant player in the yet-to-be defined Metaverse world as well. My friends at Silico Labs have developed some software that sits on top of Unity and they’re doing some pretty progressive things with it. And the cool part is that they really like the fact that I can speak basic VR geek and have a pretty good idea how to translate what I know and what my experiences are into a number of good use cases for their software.
We will be working very soon on some basic training functionality. Current thinking is something like an Intro to the Incident Command System, or an ICS Refresher just to demonstrate the interactivity bit. In its own right this isn’t really all that sexy or bleeding edge. But bringing that into a virtual environment that looks exactly like your own emergency operations center (EOC) just might be. Imaging entering a virtual replica of the EOC that you work in, sitting at the workstation for the function(s) that you will be doing, and then going through a self-guided, self-paced study or refresher. That’s one of the first things we will be building out.
We’ve also begun some work to develop interactive process flow charts and checklists. For example we have an interactive flow chart that lays out what to do in an evacuation. It is specific to business practices here in BC, but not too different from everywhere else from my experience. This evacuation flow chart is an example of where we think we can transform existing emergency plans (that 75 pound binder of bumfluffery that sits on the shelf collecting dust until game day) into truly digital emergency plans. This is the basis for our new business venture called DigitalEOC.com. We think we can use this technology to build a truly digital EOC as well.
To build that digital EOC, we also think that interactive “how to” checklists that are specific to a client’s exact emergency program business needs and practices are the answer. So we will be building some of those out as well. They are a core part of our EOC function playbooks. At Innomergence Solutions we have been building those out for clients since we first hung our consulting shingle out. Our truly digital EOC will be a combination of interactive flow charts, interactive checklists, and access to training and situational awareness resources. We’ve got all the bits and pieces in place. It’s now just a matter of pulling them all together.
The other interesting part of all this is the exercising. Right now it looks like it won’t be too hard to build an exercise module into the digital EOC platform. Consider that the typical way to host and deliver an exercise specific to your needs is to hire contractors to design the exercise, script the injects, assemble the master series of events list, and then put together a team in a simulation cell to deliver it. This approach works well enough. I’ve done lots of it and I quite enjoy it. But what we’re thinking is that currently, we can build some “canned” scenarios whereby learners can sign into the system, pick the function they want to learn more about, and then initiate a scenario that has all the injects fed based on multi-player interactions in other functions. We’ve identified a tool called Lightship Works that will allow us to build out the process flows for different scenarios. We think this will support multi-player interactive “emergency management games”, just as readily as a single play scenario where the injects automatically come into their dashboard.
Future thoughts include an AI that can take a series of prompts related to the scenario a user wants to build, and then go out and search the internet for relevant content such as images, videos, press releases, news stories, social media posts and so forth. Our initial research suggests that this is closer than we think. We’ve got a conversation going with another AI start up and look forward to seeing where it goes.
So what have I been up to thus far to get this all headed in the right direction you might be wondering. The short answer is “lots”. For starters, I subscribe to a few blogs by futurists and tech types alike. From those, I am able to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s coming at us. That helps satisfy my systems thinking needs for sure. But I have doing more than that. For example, 3 or so years ago I bought a 360 degree camera and started playing around with some different AR tools. I got an annual subscription to an AR tool called Zappar, and even spent $5000 USD to have my team trained in it. I figured that was where there might be some interesting opportunities. I’ve identified a few that I will take a closer look at once this mixed reality training project is underway.
I then started looking at virtual reality, specifically tools that allowed you to import and/or customize your own environments. I got reasonably proficient with at tool called Spatial.io. I built out a pretty good virtual EOC with it, and I still like it but it doesn’t quite extend out to the functionality that I think we need for the training and exercising. That said, it would be a pretty good tool to build out a virtual training academy or something like that. The Spatial.io experience got me looking closer at virtual reality as a likely direction to go. I even bought 6 Oculus 2 VR headsets for my team and basically said to them “figure this stuff out and let’s see where it takes us”.
I started looking at ways to feed content into digital emergency plans and virtual training environments. I have been a fan of a tool called Searchie.io (full disclosure, this is an affiliate link and I will get a small commission if you buy) since I got on the Beta user list over 3 years ago. I use it for a number of things within our consulting business, and early on I figured it might be a good way to feed video content with attachments for download. It also has a couple of other functions that look to be interesting. Namely, keyword searchable video transcripts and an AI that you can train based on the video transcripts. As a side note, I did a little experiment with Searchie a little while back.
Usually we have been led to believe that you need a whole lot of data to train an AI, which is true in terms of the big ones like ChatGPT. But I recently produced 99 explainer videos for use in some of our interactive flowcharts and checklists, and uploaded them into a Searchie hub. In Searchie you can add tags and I added one called “AI” to all those videos and then set its internal AI tool to use the transcripts from them. It turns out that it is a small amount of data in terms of training Ais, but because it is 100% focused content, the AI comes back with some pretty accurate stuff. So early indications are that Searchie might have some role and as we go through this Digital EOC project, we will discover what that might look like.
I’m a whiteboarding fool, so 3 of my office walls have whiteboards that are loaded with flow charts and org charts related to digital emergency plans and the Digital EOC tools suite. Similarly I have word documents with ideas, checklists, flowcharts and org charts as well. We’ve even done a few in tools such as Miro. I’m sure there’s more but I don’t recall what those tools might be. Suffice it to say, there has been several different variants of it but I’ve finally landed on a basic model whereby the digital emergency plan tool is going to be based on our playbooks.
We’ve had great success with our playbooks. Clients really appreciate that succinct “how to” is much more useful and valuable than a whole bunch of general “you should”, copied from other plans and published content. So it makes sense to bring those into the digital planning, training and exercising world. So let’s see if I can pull all of this together into something that represents a bit of a vision for you.
We are developing a Digital EOC tool. It will basically be a digital version of a playbook with links to reference content, interactive flowcharts and interactive checklists both with explainer videos, and training resources. This will be available to any browser based device including mobile, computers and VR headsets. The Digital EOC tool will also feed a virtual training and exercising tool such that an organization could have staff self-guided learning at their own pace which could all access their digital emergency plans. This Digital EOC tool will also take the form of a client-specific mobile app that reflects their emergency plans, and users will also be able to access the virtual training tool through it.
So we’d like your help if you want to play with us. We have a LinkedIn Group dedicated to this project. That’s where I will be most actively sharing my learnings, “aha” moments and so forth. We’d love to have you come over and share your guidance and ideas. Fair warning though. We’re going to treat the Digital EOC LinkedIn group pretty seriously. We’ll keep things light and entertaining, but won’t tolerate anyone who is there for nefarious reasons. There is a set of rules posted there.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, consider getting one. It’s a pretty robust B2B platform and generally the people that are there are serious about what they do. That’s why we like it, more so than some of the other social media sites. If you don’t want to get a LinkedIn account then I will be posting a general blog each week at our DigitalEOC.com site. Either way, we invite you to be a part of something that is potentially transformational and game changing in the way we train and exercise in the emergency management world.
If you want to know more about them, PM me in the LinkedIn Group called DigitalEOC.