Disaster Preparedness through Virtual Reality

The Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society
  The intensity of the natural phenomena in the Caribbean has increased in recent years. For example, since 2017, three category five hurricanes (Irma, María, and Dorian) have caused considerable damage to all the islands in the region. These experiences and various recent studies reaffirm the importance and need to work with communities in raising awareness and developing capacities to prepare for and respond to disasters. Despite all of the above, it’s been surprisingly challenging for the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society to draw the attention of the communities they work with to the importance of disaster preparedness. One explanation could be that there are several smaller natural events every year, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, which are not causing substantial damage. As these events become a cycle that is constantly repeated, after some time the population ceases to give these events the importance they require. In addition, due to lack of a sense of an emergency when these things happen, the reaction of the inhabitants becomes slow and sometimes it is already too late when trying to react. This makes the communities highly vulnerable to more adverse events of greater magnitude in the future.

Safe environment to experience possible disasters

To meet this challenge, the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society began experimenting with virtual reality technologies. This ultimately led to the creation of a virtual reality based education and awareness system on the impacts of disasters and the importance of disaster preparedness. It’s a 3D experience, in which people feel the sensations they would feel when a natural disaster occurs, and therefore can experience the consequences of these events in a safe and controlled immersive environment. At the same time, they are supported to develop the knowledge and skills on how to act in such a scenario. For stronger impact and increasing the chances that people generate genuine interest in preparing for such events, the Red Cross developed three virtual “worlds” with possible disaster scenarios the country may experience, set in some of the best-known communities in Trinidad and Tobago. One of them is a magnitude 8 earthquake, and another is a category 5 hurricane. The third one is a training center to learn and prepare for disasters. For the development of these virtual worlds, the Red Cross made several consultations with experts in this field, including the IFRC Solferino Academy, designers from Hollywood studios, and local innovators. Based on these expert consultations, they decided to use existing technology on the market to develop a virtual reality experience based on the use of smartphones, and complement it with Virtual Reality headsets that offer a more realistic experience.

New technology to complement trainings

Initially, the project was proposed to be applied to young people. However, after its implementation, it was found that this technology has a similar impact also on adults. The funding from the Empress Shôken Fund has allowed the Red Cross not only to experiment with this new technology, but also helped them to reach more than 2300 people. Between October 2020 and August of 2021, 1285 people have successfully completed the virtual training and obtained their certificate. Currently, a mobile application based on augmented reality is being developed to educate young people from schools and communities in disaster preparedness.This experience has allowed the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society to have a better understanding of these new technologies and to use them as a complement in its training processes.