By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News
A fire breaks out in a long, one-story building, smoke billows into the air and employees fleeing the structure say a dozen other people are still inside.
A fire truck pours water on one end of the building. An ambulance arrives in a parking lot near the structure, then two others join it.
The fire department’s battalion commander, in a perch away from the building, continues assessing the situation and communicating with firefighters close to the flames. Then, all of a sudden, the roof collapses at the far end of the building.
What does the commander do?
Coby Robinett grabs a joy stick and calmly gives an order for firefighters to enter the building to find the people, and he halts the deluge of water to protect anyone who might remain in the area.
Robinett isn’t actually in the midst of a conflagration but in the middle of a room where two walls are covered in a computer-generated, animated scene. It is called the Advanced Disaster Management Simulator.
Delivered a few months ago to Concordia University’s Columbia River Campus on Northeast Glenn Widing Way, the ADMS is a training device for students earning a bachelor’s degree in the four-year-old Homeland Security program.
The university says the program provides the critical thinking and ethical decision making for those in public or private positions who must act when disaster strikes. The simulator, the largest of its type in the United States, gives practice in dealing with a variety of emergencies, said Jason P. Nairn, an associate professor and director of the simulation lab.
Robinett, a captain with the Vancouver, Washington, Fire Department, has an associate degree in fire science plus paramedic training, and now he is a junior in Concordia’s program, working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Other students in the program may prepare for city and county emergency departments, maritime security, police agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cyber security, public health and private businesses with overseas operations.
For instance, said Scott M. Winegar, a former Portland police officer who is director of the university’s program, a Nike manager told him about devising alternate routes for transporting materials to overseas manufacturing plants when unrest in Asia threatened the company’s usual routes.
Assessment is an important part of students’ learning, said Winegar, who has a master’s degree and gained some of his own emergency training in U.S. Navy programs.
For one assignment, Robinett assessed the condition of Vancouver’s main fire station, including its ability to withstand an earthquake. Chief Joe Molina was so impressed with Robinett’s report that he asked the captain for an assessment of the city’s nine other fire stations, Winegar said.
That practical application, said Winegar, is what the program is designed to offer.
“Our students are engaged,” he said. “We have almost no quizzes or tests because we don’t want to know what you remember. We want to know what you can do.”
The simulator gives students the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge to situations that unfold before their eyes, requiring quick decisions, said Nairn.
Typically, emergency strategies are worked out in “table top” exercises, Nairn said. Those have value up to a point, he said, but the simulator adds a greater feeling of immediacy.
“It’s hard for students to imagine what it’s like to be in a Katrina situation,” he said. The simulator can, in effect, surround them with conditions requiring good judgment, he said.
However, their first efforts aren’t always successful, he said. In one scenario, students were slow to get to a fire and risked losing a building. In another, they called out more trucks and ambulances than they actually used, thus wasting resources, he said.
University staff members expect to offer simulator time, for a fee, to public agencies, utilities and other organizations testing emergency plans, said Madeline Turnock, assistant to the university president.
While the simulator is attractive, it’s only one aspect of the Homeland Security program. Students may select from a range of online classes, including information about cyber security important to businesses, Winegar said. Other courses include leadership development and the psychology of terrorism.
For more information: cu-portland.edu.