In partnership with the Department of National Defence and the City of Ottawa, two high-tech firms are creating an intricate simulation of bio-terrorist incidents that will allow emergency response teams to better prepare for the unthinkable.

Executives from Greenley & Associates and

AEgis Simulation Technologies Inc. say their companies are working on a $2-million project that features digital 3D renderings of Ottawa’s roads, buildings, houses, sewer systems, and more. The virtual city will provide all of this detail based on the GIS (geographic imaging systems) mapping data from the City of Ottawa, explains Mike Greenley, principal consultant of Greenley & Associates, based in Ottawa.

Once completed in the spring of 2005, the technology behind the “virtual city” project will allow members of Ottawa’s fire, police and EMS departments to practice their response drills in a very realistic environment. Greenley says emergency response teams will be able to climb aboard a simulator, race down virtual city blocks toward a virtual disaster scene, and decide how best to deal with the dispersion of biological, chemical or radiological agents.

For example, the simulation technology will embrace military models of how a cloud of chlorine gas proliferates under certain climatic and wind conditions, says Greenley. Such simulation could automatically determine the best route to reach the scene, suggest plans of action, and provide municipal personnel with a valuable hands-on training experience. One simulator could replicate the flight-path of a police helicopter, while another could replicate the route of an ambulance driver. All users would be interconnected during the exercise, allowing them to talk to one another and see each other’s virtual vehicles, says John Nicol, general manager of AEgis.

Greenley says the project piqued DND’s interest because it promises to help the department simulate the many places they operate around the world, creating virtual battle scenarios and incidents involving hazardous materials.

While the two companies have so far remained at the talking stage with a municipal committee regarding the adoption and implementation of a virtual Ottawa, Greenley anticipates that talks will progress quickly in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the director of research and development at the federal Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness (OCIPEP) says the Greenley-AEgis project is “certainly something we are going to look at.” Chris Tucker says the world of simulation and modeling for hazards is only going to get more precise. But he also cautions that precision remains one of the biggest hurdles.

“Do you know, for example, how many cars cross an intersection, how much water flows through a pipe, or precisely what the parameters of a building are? What’s the resolution of its elevation? All of these things need to be accounted for if you want the model to be precise.”

Nonetheless, Tucker says, as precision improves and as the cost of simulation decreases, there will be more and more uses for simulation. These uses include not just plume dispersions of gaseous clouds and how they react around buildings, but the cascading effect of such an event, namely traffic and crowd controls.

Jim Carroll, a Toronto-area technology and trends expert, agrees the level of realism around simulation is stunning, and “it’s only going to get better.” But one major challenge is the constant updating that any 3D rendering of a city demands. In fact, updating is imperative to ensure the technology remains in tune with all of the construction and expansion of urban and suburban roads and buildings.

“You can see every three years what a remarkable change there is in the city,” acknowledges Steve Perkins, a senior photogrammetrist with the City of Ottawa. “We’re trying to keep our topographic data set as up-to-date as possible, and this should feed (efforts) like the virtual city project.”

Carroll adds there are additional challenges around training people and getting them to adopt a “simulation mindset.”

“Airline pilots have been doing simulation for years. They’re in that mindset, but I think it will take a lot time for other people to think that way.”

In the future, it’s inevitable that more people will be exposed to the virtual world more frequently, adds Carroll.

“Kids are growing up in the simulated world already because they’re into video games and they understand it. So they already have more of a mindset to adapt to things like this.”

Those who have been in the simulation mindset for years include Nicol. The former UN peace-keeping officer sees a day when he can apply the same simulation technology that his company is providing for Ottawa’s virtual city project to aid stations in war-torn countries. Aid agencies can use it to find the best location for a food-distribution centre, one that’s relatively close to running water, says Nicol. He adds a simulator can also answer questions such as: “What is the drive like from the aid station to the distribution point? Do I need to have armed escorts? How do I plan my route if areas X, Y and Z are hostile?”

Roughly $800,000 of the $2 million that Greenley and AEgis have secured for the virtual city project came from DND, the City of Ottawa and corporate coffers. The remainder came from a $170-million federal fund from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI).

The CRTI Secretariat, which is charged making sure Canada is prepared for chemical, biological and radiological incidents, was established after the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax letter attacks brought national security and counter-terrorism preparedness into focus.

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