Using Virtual Reality for Emergency Situations Training


How modern technologies can constitute a valid tool for designing emergency response, training personnel to function during emergencies, and raising awareness for the management of complexity in scenarios-related interventions.

Adapted from an article published in Antincendio magazine, August 2018

By Luca Fiorentini and Andrea Respighi

Emergency planning is a key element of the strategy that organizations must put in place to guarantee an appropriate level of safety. This article focuses on fire-related emergencies in industrial sites and illustrates how new technologies can help train people to face situations that are too difficult and/or costly to be re-created in reality.

The Emergency Plan defines what people should do when an emergency occurs. It addresses not only the behavior of people directly involved in the management of the emergency, but also that of other people who are at the site of the emergency.

Managing an emergency is a difficult task, because it is not always obvious for everyone to know what is the right thing to do and because the people involved must act in an organized way. People also are more prone to commit errors when in stressful conditions, so the only way to increase the probability that the right actions will be carried out when necessary is to train people in what do to and ensure they become used to doing it.

It is understandable that emergency training is not always a simple task. Asking people to read procedures and checking that they know them is surely a good starting point, but usually – we could say always — it is not enough.

On-site or field live training is a good way to help people acquire familiarity with the situations and the tools they would encounter in case of emergency but, in several situations, it might not be enough. Training and emergency simulations are often only done on a small scale, in good weather and with full daylight, while the reality could be a large fire at night in the rain. In addition, a complex and big scenario such as a highway accident or big tank fire cannot easily be reproduced for training purposes.

Virtual Reality (VR) can be of great help in these cases, because it can reproduce any scenario in any condition and test the scenario as many times as desired.

Using Virtual Reality for Emergency Situations Training The term "Virtual Reality" refers to a simulated reality — a three-dimensional scenario generated by a computer that aims to provide the maximum level of realism. The idea dates back to the 1960s, but only in the last few years has computer hardware become powerful enough to render high-definition 3D environments.

Virtual Reality is widely used in video games, but in industry as well, where nowadays it is an important tool for designing complex objects and situations.

Figure 1, uso of VR in engineering

An important use of Virtual Reality is for training, not only for emergencies, but for everyday work as well.

One well known example is the training of planes' pilots: millions of dollars simulators, constituted of a mobile cabin with a complete airplane cockpit inside that perfectly reproduces the reactions of the simulated airplane at the pilot's commands.


Figure 2: Exterior of a professional flight simulator.

Figure 3: Interior of a professional flight simulator.

The steady increase in computing power and the parallel increase of business in virtual reality has created a high level of realism and the development of dedicated peripherals that contribute to making the user experience more immersive.

Among specific peripherals, the one that probably is the most commonly associated with virtual reality is the head-mounted display, which isolates the user from the external world. It has position and orientation sensors and contains two small screens that reproduce two slightly different images, replicating what the two eyes would see in the real 3D world according to the user’s movements. Adding a spatial sound provides a strong feeling of being inside the simulated world.

Figure 4: Multi-monitor use with joystick (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Figure 5: Use with 3D headset (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Methods for Education and Training There are several commonly used methods for education and training in VR, each one with advantages and disadvantages.

A general rule is that the more people are involved in what they are doing, the more information their braina retain.

Figure 6: “Learning by doing,” based on Edgar Dale (1969) and online learning continuum.

Virtual reality can be used for a wide variety of scenarios, such as fires, road accidents, public order, Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN),1  Hazardous Materials (HazMat)2  and more.

The most-common use of VR platforms for training is a student-teacher configuration, where there is a teacher and one or more students and each participant has their own computer. Every student is represented by an avatar in the simulated world that the teacher characterizes or creates before the live session begins. During the live session, the teacher can see what the students do and change conditions in real time to see how students react to new situations.

VR platforms can also be used for classroom training courses where students analyze an emergency situation from an external point of view.

Figure 7, representation of a typical multi-user training session with VR (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.)

Risk Analysis and Procedures for the Management of Emergencies
Training scenarios are usually built starting from scenarios that have been identified with risk analysis, so students become confident about situations that are most likely to happen in their work environments.

Figure 8: Graphical representation of radiation vs. distance (courtesy of Tecsa s.r.l.).

A typical case for the petrochemical sector could be a pool fire after leakage from a piece of equipment.

Risk analysis can be used to characterize the fire with a specific software program that estimates the consequences of the fire in terms of radiation level versus distance, representing it as a curve on a chart.

Then, distances at which the radiation reaches critical levels would be identified, with critical levels that correspond to well-known effects on people and structures. Typically, these values are 3 – 5 – 7 – 12,5 – 37,5 kW/m2.

The curves corresponding to these levels would be drawn on a map, using a different color for each radiation level.

At this point, the scenario has been defined, the radiation levels are known and there is a map showing the values of the radiation in each point of interest. What is usually missing is a sense of what that scenario would look like in real life, because circles on a drawing do not represent the complexity of a scenario of that kind (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Graphical representation of iso-radiation circles (courtesy of Tecsa s.r.l.).

Here VR can be of great help, by putting the student inside the scenario to see what it would look like in realistic detail.

Figure 10: Incident scenario definition from teacher point of view (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Figure 11, incident scenario from student point of view (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Typical Workflow for Training with Virtual Reality
The typical VR workflow consists of:

  1. Choice of a base location
  2. Scenario definition
  3. Student roles definition
  4. Modification of the scenario in real time
  5. Evaluation and feedback

Choice of a Base Location
A VR platform usually provides a set of prebuilt environments that can be used as a base to build a scenario. If needed, it is usually possible to create a new environment from scratch, replicating the real environment with a high level of detail.

Scenario Definition
The teacher puts all the necessary elements into the environment. These elements can be of any kind: fire, smoke, vehicles, toxicity zones, tools, trees, buildings and whatever could help to define the scenario as precisely as desired.

Objects usually have some properties that can be modified to add realism. For example, emergency vehicles can have lights and sirens that can be turned on and off; people can be animated; weather conditions and daylight conditions can be changed to add more realism.

Figure 12, incident scenario, teacher point of view (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Figure 13: Different weather and daylight conditions scenario (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Student Roles Definitions
Each student is typically assigned a role, such as firefighter or police officer. The available tools are also defined.

Real-Time Scenario Modifications
Once the training session has started, the students are put in the same virtual world — they see it from a first-person perspective and can see each other.

The teacher has a third-person perspective and can see what each student does, as well as modify the scenario in real time, such as escalating a fire or making firefighters arrive.

The teacher also can freeze the scenario at any moment to analyze and resume it.

Evaluation and Feedback
Once the training session has concluded, it can be analyzed to see whether everybody acted correctly and to improve management of the scenario.

Figure 14: First-person student view (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Complex Environments Simulation
VR can be used to simulate both straightforward and complex environments or events such as these.

Figure 15: Fire in a tunnel inside a train station (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Figure 16: Fire on a container ship (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).

Figure 17: Fire at an airport (courtesy of XVR Simulation B.V.).


Luca Fiorentini, Andrea Respighi (Tecsa srl)


1CBRN is used to indicate situations where the danger is related to one of its four hazards and to the use of weapons of mass destruction, as in a terror attack.

2HazMat refers to situations where dangerous substances are involved (toxic or radioactive).

 Whyte, J., Nikolić, D. Virtual reality and the built environment. Routledge, 2018.

 Dale, Edgar. Audiovisual methods in teaching. Dryden Press, 1969.

 Williams-Bell, F.M., Kapralos, B., Hogue, A., Weckman, E.J. Using serious games and virtual simulation for training in the fire service: a review. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 2014.