Case Study: Belarusian Ministry of Emergency Situations Tests the Use of Virtual Reality in Fire Prevention

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We have developed an interesting project for the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES) of the Republic of Belarus, incorporating the use of Virtual Reality technology. Then, the technology still seemed quite new and it was not used widely in the public sector, so the fact that Virtual Reality was implemented in the activity of the Ministry of Emergency Situations was something of an event.

Today, few people are surprised by Virtual Reality. The technology has become less expensive and is available commercially. Almost anyone can purchase advanced VR glasses for just $1,000, whereas 10 years ago, a less functional gadget cost about 7,000 “US presidents” apiece.

Taking old projects from the archives, we decided to find out how our product was being used and how it had helped students with their studies. Sergey Pastukhov, the head of the Faculty of Leadership Training, PhD, and Associate Professor at the University of Civil Protection at the Belarusian Ministry of Emergency Situations helped us to dive into Virtual Reality, told us about the benefits of the program and suggested some possible upgrades.

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Development

Our collaboration with the Ministry of Emergency Situations meant developing two programming modules. The largest project was a multi-language program helping employees to conduct inspections and providing expertise regarding an accident. Another was for firefighting.

“ Before modelling every building, we compiled project documentation for all details being inside the building. We search for particular objects online, whether it is a fire hydrant, fire extinguisher, or a ventilation pipe, then we scaled and drew them thoroughly in AutoCAD, and a designer modelled its 3D copies,” Sergey Pastukhov tells us. 

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As a result, the program counts 22 buildings with thousands of details. However, the challenge was that we had to make a separate folder with a list of specifications for each object.The details of a building include wires, sockets, hooks, which meant that we ended up with thousands of folders’. So, in general, there were thousands of folders.

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We also implemented real environmental sounds in the program. Each building has sounds, so for example, a user can hear the circular saw and the pump in the sawmill.

Functional

Since the program’s launch, the user has been able to choose a scientific advisor from the list. They can also appoint custom settings: the term and percentage of detected violations that would ensure the effortless delivery of an exam.

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In the training mode, the building is perceived by the program as a closed volume, and unless the cadet finds the exact percentage of all violations of accident prevention inside or outside the building, the program does not let him out. It plays like a quest, but, don’t worry, no lives are lost – it’s just a game!

Another option is the controlling mode, which has a time limit in which to find the violations. Strict time frames for detecting violations help to hone the skills of cadets.

“ Our quality control inspectors are in competition with each other, allowing us to find the best of the best,” Sergey Pastukhov says.

In addition, the program works in ghost mode, where the user is able to go through walls and objects and can fly over the building. Finally, there is a real mode that is like our physical realm: if you bump into the wall, you can’t pass through.

Another software module imitates a potential emergency situation. For example, in one video, our program recreated a fire in the oil stock. Cadets can choose from the settings which technique to use for extinguishing the fire. A head of operations chooses the required number of active facilities with the mouse. The fire is shown in progress, as in real life – the timeline reflects this. Until the correct technique is implemented, the fire continues to grow, while the building gets destroyed.

The main goal of firefighters is to extinguish a fire with any tools and equipment they can find. So, the program displays a panel featuring a calculator, calculation models, water tank, etc. Plus, when it comes to dealing with fire in the building, we must also take into consideration fire resistance and the sensitivity of the building’s structure. That is, if a person hesitates to react for a certain period, the building will be burnt and ruined, just like in real life.

Ideas for modernization

The first program using Virtual Reality technology was designed for students who are learning about fire safety violations; the second was for those who are fighting a fire. But, even within these areas, the program has further room for development. For example, you can implement a fire alarm or a firefighting process. But, in practice, it would be important for any party to learn how to react in an emergency situation – not only trained professionals, but also the average passer-by. So, a firefighter could learn extinguishing and rescuing, an auditor – checking and preventing, and an ordinary inhabitant – staying calm and finding the right exit.

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  1. Evacuation

Imagine the scenario. It’s a state of emergency, the building is burning, an alarm button is pushed, and people start evacuating. In life, people do not always do the right thing – they often tend to panic, therefore practising possible emergency scenarios can improve accident prevention techniques in the workplace.

Moreover, in employment, as a rule, everybody signs the health and safety agreement, but in reality, they aren’t very familiar with it.

  1. Fire Safety Audit

Inspections were popular mostly in the USSR, but now they remain just as a vestige of the past. The audit, however, is getting more relevant and applicable in practice nowadays. What is the difference? An inspection involves fining upon discovery of any violations, whereas an audit performs the same test, but without the fines. Auditors come to a conclusion about the fire safety status of the premises: either it is low or optimal. As a result, the businessman has a choice: either to eliminate all violations and invest once or to insure the object for a large amount, paying annually without investing anything. If a building is insured, the owner would be compensated in the case of an emergency, but if it is not insured, and no action has been taken towards the prevention of fire, an accident could lead to criminal liability. Therefore, an audit, unlike an inspection, encourages the head to invest in the fire safety of the business premises once and for all.

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  1. Extinguishing

” We had the idea to make a simulator on Kinect technology,”  says Sergey. “In other words, to develop a universal suit that would be able to withstand conditions of combat clothes: temperature, heat radiation, the total weight of the equipment on the person. At the same time, skeletal tracking and precise geolocation are a must to create real feelings and perceptions being close to reality. “

The program can be upgraded more thoroughly. At the moment, all we have is a PC version, but one exciting possibility would be to develop more advanced software, not just as a math challenge, but in order to create some complex, interactive equipment? We could take a student and put him inside a suit stuffed with sensors, give him gloves and a helmet with Virtual Reality technology, and recreate all the conditions. The cadet would have to decide how to react according to what items he can fetch first, which way the fire is spreading, the type of materials the construction is made from. It is like a baptism of fire, only without any risk to the cadets.

  1. Virtual Labs

Another area in which the subject can be developed is laboratory work. For example, one focus for laboratory work at the University of MES is “Determination of material hardness, tensile forces and tension”. The device used to determine these factors costs 50 thousand dollars, but the development may tackle this problem cheaper.

“ How can you recreate the lab in the program? We give goggles and gloves to a student. The task might be to check the armature on breaking, for example, so the student chooses the armature in the program, loads it and measures the tensile force the armature with a given class is breaking. This approach may be applicable to the study of material properties,”- Sergey adds. “And, using the same method, laboratory works on any subject can be carried out. “

Knowledge about material properties can be applied to determine fire resistance and structural strength urgently, during fire extinguishing. The main purpose of MES does not extend as far as firefighting but can help to prevent a fire accident. For fire prevention, it is necessary to test the materials from which the building is made – i.e. conduct an inspection or an audit.

  1. Industrial safety

Cadets study not only ‘fire inspection’, but also ‘industrial safety’ at the university. Such cadets can search for another sort of violation in the program, for example, they would have to detect whether the height of the timber storage is higher than the gantry crane that moves them. So, this is a separate area in which we can improve the software.

Sergei Pastukhov comments: “I saw a lot of quests for extinguishing at European conferences. ‘Inspection’ is the only one that I encountered, so now, in this field, I suppose, we are unique.”

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Mind games

The University of the Ministry of Emergency Situations also conducts a championship using our virtual reality program. The competition is even described as a CyberSport. Students selected to the team get given a task – to check the virtual object. The object is revealed at the last possible moment, and students have only one hour to fix all the violations on time. This game gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in practice, reacting quickly to a specific situation.

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Of course, after years of use, the program requires an upgrade. We have developed it for less powerful devices. However, it is a question of obtaining funding from the state budget. The programs for inspecting and firefighting can definitely be improved with such tech tricks as trackers, sensors, additional gadgets, as well as the development of new associated programs which use them. Anyway, as it stands, the university is equipped to teach cadets with practical skills from scratch, playing out life scripts of emergency situations through VR.

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