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Helping Heroes Find Their Way

Helping Heroes Find Their Way

As Yangming Shi ’20, a Ph.D. student in construction science, navigates the underground subway in this virtual world, the crackling sound of fire surrounds him. Smoke impairs his vision. Walking in one direction initiates a massive explosion, while a burst pipe sends water flying in a different corner. The environment is chaotic.

Shi is immersed in a firefighter’s world—one in which the ability to navigate through complex structures like subway stations, airports or hospitals can mean life or death. Hazardous conditions often induce cognitive overload, impeding first responders’ critical sense of direction.

To help firefighters better orient themselves in stressful situations, Texas A&M assistant professor of construction science Jing “Eric” Du is collaborating with research partners at Northeastern University on a wayfinding project funded through the National Science Foundation. As firefighters from College Station and Boston navigate virtual emergency scenarios, Du’s team measures their pulse, brain activity, and eye and body movements. At the end of each simulation, the data is exported to pinpoint when cognitive overload occurs.

“In the uniquely perilous world of firefighting, familiarity is difficult to acquire without exposure to real hazards,” said Du. “In our simulations, firefighters can safely train to become better equipped to do their jobs. The goal is to reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities and improve their mental health over the long term.”

After completing his research, Du will release his findings through an open-source information system with an online course for firefighters to improve their cognitive load limits and wayfinding capabilities.