Va. responders train in virtual world
By Kimball Payne
CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Hampton Roads firefighters, ambulance drivers and police officers could get a new training device early next year, as regional planners prepare for a summer homeland security drill.
It's something like emergency Nintendo.
It's a computer program that runs mock crisis scenarios and allows first-responders to navigate local roads digitally reconstructed in three dimensions on a screen. Firefighters and ambulance drivers can run tests on various response routes and get instant feedback on which shortcuts work and which don't.
But first, local officials want to make sure that they're not going to get in any legal trouble for sidestepping the typical bidding process and awarding the contract to a firm called BreakAway, based in Hunt Valley, Md.
It wasn't a typical bid because the company is a unique fit for the region, said Art Collins, executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, a committee of regional officials.
Collins said it was important to get the technology in place before the summer of 2008, when local officials would participate in a national homeland security exercise to work on communication.
Newport News Mayor Joe Frank and York County Supervisor Thomas Shepperd raised questions about the bidding process during a meeting last week.
Shepperd noted that at least four organizations had similar programs. Regarding whether the panel could get in trouble for bypassing the bidding process, Collins said he would have attorneys look at the proposed deal again and present their findings in January.
"It's borderline," Collins said. "I'm not a lawyer, (but) I think it's all right."
Frank said he would like attorneys to have another look.
"It's seems like a good investment," he said. "I just want to do it the right way."
It'll cost $206,000 to find out whether local emergency workers like the technology.
That startup money would allow the company to tailor the game to local geography, and Collins said local officials simply had to return the software if it wasn't a success.
"It's relatively risk-free," Collins said. "If the first-responders don't like it, then we get our money back and move on."
If the program is a success, it'll cost $464,000 more to get the program. Collins said local officials would attempt to pay for that using grant money because the program would benefit homeland security.
He said the program would have a financial benefit because it would allow people to train for emergency situations, without mobilizing the entire police force or fire department.
"It'll be a way of reducing the cost of putting people in the field for training," Collins said. "It's pretty amazing."
Copyright 2007 Daily Press
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