DHS ponders foray into Second Life

TRAINING GROUND: 'We could mock things up that happen in real life,' says DHS' Tony Frater.

Rick Steele

The Homeland Security Department is considering setting up an outpost in Second Life, the virtual Sims-like world that has attracted 3 million registered users since 2003.

The landscape of this digital universe, founded by Linden Research Inc. of San Francisco, is rapidly changing. When it was first launched, Second Life was a motley shire where trolls, hobbits and elves'and other less savory grid dwellers'frolicked. Now it is becoming a legitimate corporate meeting place for corporations, universities and, increasingly, government agencies. Federal agencies that have set up islands on Second Life include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Congress [GCN.com/745].

DHS is just at the point of having informal discussions with one company about setting up a virtual island for its Safecom program, said Tony Frater, DHS' deputy director of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility. 'But we haven't taken the plunge,' he said.

Safecom is an integration and engineering project whose goal is to connect wireless first-response systems across federal, state and local agencies. 'At Safecom, we're focused on research, testing and evaluation, and standards to support communications equipment for the first-responder and the public safety community,' Frater said.

As such, Safecom involves a lot of collaboration with commercial engineers, experts in academia and others, he said. Some of these experts live and work in places such as Prague and Singapore. To bring all these people together in one place for conferences would be a logistical nightmare and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Frater said.

But if DHS were to enable these far-flung researchers and experts to log on to Second Life at www.lindenlab.com and convene by means of avatars and instant messaging, it would be almost like holding a real-world conference. Best of all, Second Life is free except for some nominal, optional fees.

Not only does Second Life cost practically zilch, but nobody gets hurt. Avatar firemen drive virtual trucks that sound virtual sirens. Virtual chemical spills are hoovered up quickly with a virtual hose. Virtual tornadoes devastate virtual counties that can be restored in seconds with a quick 'undo.'

Most public-safety agencies don't have the resources to conduct 'tabletop exercises,' which typically are simulations of first-responder events such as a pandemic or a biochemical attack, Frater said. One of these exercises usually requires public-safety workers to spend an entire weekend working at the event. And a tabletop exercise can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In Second Life, however, 'we could build training exercises around chemical spills, hurricanes or tornadoes,' Frater said. 'It's fairly realistic. We could mock up things that happen in real life.' Public safety agencies could upload their standard operating procedures and get 30 or so avatars to conduct a simulation exercise.

One of the most attractive features of Second Life is its social networking environment, which lets people share information with great immediacy, Frater said. 'First responders'more than a lot of other professions'look to their colleagues for experiences and successes.'

Frater described the Safecom program as 'practitioner-driven. We get ideas from the first-responder community to find out what's working well and what's not working well.'

But some have raised eyebrows at Second Life's seedy side, teeming with casinos and unclothed beaches. The site also has its share of vandals, such as the 'griefers' who recently defaced the Second Life site of presidential candidate John Edwards.

Is DHS comfortable being a part of this world?

'Just like the Internet, Second Life has both appropriate and inappropriate sections,' Frater said. 'DHS will take appropriate steps to protect its information. We also talked about setting up meeting spaces that can be conducted in private,' which require invitations. 'I think a lot of seminars would be in a closed setting,' he said.

Although only a handful of government agencies have staked out claims in Second Life, Frater thinks a government users group for the virtual world would be a big help in sharing best practices.

'So many of the investments in Second Life are reusable,' he said. 'I think that's an e-gov principle we should all be putting to use.'

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