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City of New York

3D Immersive Emergency Shelter Simulation

The Challenge

The New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) ran hundreds of classroom-based courses, where they brought together civil servants to learn how to run a Hurricane Shelter. This approach was found to be costly, time consuming and lacked any sense of an impending disaster and need for emergency response. Full-scale exercises have proven effective, but cost prohibitive.

The Solution

They turned to the Gronstedt Group to create a simulation that overcame these issues, providing users with a more immersive and realistic approach at a lower cost. The four-hour long immersive simulation takes place in a virtual emergency shelter modeled on a real school building in Brooklyn. The learner plays the role of an Emergency Shelter Manager—opening, running, and closing the shelter. This 3-D virtual rehearsal and training simulation helps City employees practice their shelter management skills and apply problem-solving skills in a realistic environment. They can take the self-paced simulation on their own or in a small team of three to five players. “Our feedback suggests that the cooperative experience of playing and being scored as a small group is more effective than a single-player experience,” says Andrew Boyarsky, Project Director at the School of Professional Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, who spearheaded the program.


The simulation starts with a newscast announcing that “Hurricane Leo” is forecasted to hit the New York City area in a few days and Emergency Shelters are being activated. The learner has just arrived at the shelter from the Evacuation Center. They practice setting up the facility for shelter clients when they arrive, designate key shelter areas, assign staff, and ensure that areas are set up and supplied properly so the shelter is ready to open to the public. When the shelter clients arrive, learners are challenged to solve a number of thorny problems. How do they resolve conflicts? How do they communicate with clients who don’t speak English? The simulation recognizes key words and determines the next response by the character. The complete simulation includes 40-50 such non-player characters. As the clock ticks down to zero hour, learners prepare for the arrival of the storm. After the storm, they conduct a walk-through to check that the building is safe, and address post-storm concerns of the shelter clients and the needs of the facility. For some issues they will find solutions in the manager’s Field Guide while others will require some thought using their own managerial skills and experience. Learners need to think on their feet, just like in the real world. They learn in context, while earning points, solving problems and receiving feedback.

The Results

Test groups of students are giving the simulation rave reviews. A whopping 100% agreed that the program was closer to real world activities than classroom-based courses, 100% of participants also responded that our 3D program engaged them as learners compared to 87% who found that a comparable 2D course engaged them. Particularly heartening is the feedback from City employees who participated in live exercise in the same school building that the simulation was modeled on, who all said that the simulation was very similar to the real-life exercise. The cost of a single live exercise with 150 students is about ten times as high as the entire development budget for our 3D immersive program. The City of New York would need to run ten live exercises to train its entire pool of 1,500 responders, making live exercises 100 times more expensive than the digital version. The simulation earned a second place in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Assisted Training category of the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge from a pool of about four dozen entries.

Live exercises are


more expensive than the digial version.

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