The Hydra Immersive Simulation System (hereafter Hydra) is a unique, high-fidelity learning environment that enables the monitoring of real-time leadership and decision making in critical incidents (for example, terrorist attacks, murders, abductions). The system evolved from an original system called Minerva, (Newland, Creed & Crego, 1997) which was principally designed to support team based decision making in the management of football and other public order incidents (See Taylor,1990). After the Stephen Laurence murder, a new approach was needed to develop the strategic and critical decision making skills of SIOs (Crego & Harris, 2002); more recent exercises have also involved education, health, and social service professionals in simulated multi-agency incidents (for example, child protection enquiries) and non-govemental organisations (NGOs) (for example, hostage recovery) in the humanitarian world. In light of the terrorist context, the multi-agency response to terrorist incidents has gripped the latest developments of the methodology.
In each simulation, participants are split into teams typically comprising four to seven members; in multi-agency exercises, participants can either be assigned to teams comprised of either multi agency or single agencies. Each team operates within a separate ‘pod’ which functions as a microworld (Senge, 1990); they are monitored via CCTV and boundary microphones, and equipped with the Hydra computer screens, keyboards and printers. A team of directing staff comprised of Hydra learning experts and subject matter experts run the exercise from a central control room. A facilitator also observes the behaviours and requests from the microworld participants. The facilitators can see and hear teams at all times via CCTV and everything entered on the teams’ computers is also displayed in the control room. Hydra exercises use pre-constructed case scenarios. For example, participants might begin with an initial report of an abduction and rape on day one and by day three, they have successfully (or otherwise) identified and arrested the suspect.
The incidents unfold in real-time, continually moving between ‘slow-burn’ tasks (e.g., analysis of witness statements, examination of forensic evidence) and ‘fast-burn’ tasks (e.g., highly volatile family liaison, press attention) (Crego & Harris, 2002). The Hydra system has a comprehensive and sophisticated multi-media store of information that can be communicated to teams at any point. They include ‘paper feed’ written information (such as records of criminal convictions or eye witness statements that might constitute an alibi for a suspect, faxes, criminal records, and other analytical product) and visual information (such as photofits of suspects or video clips of actors conveying information, telephone calls, radio traffic etc.). Facilitators can ‘fire off’ pre-stored triggers as and when they feel it appropriate, based on the time-line of the incident and the actions of the syndicate teams; this would include the appropriate timing of press conferences or briefings with senior officers or members of other agencies, Gold groups etc. As with reality, these triggers are either slow or fast burners, and the subsequent activities from, say, a press conference, may well lead to some of the participants being selected for a live press conference that will take place in a television studio. Such features strengthen immersion and participants feel a great sense of ‘Presence’ (defined as the subjective experience of being in one place or environment, even when one is physically situated in another (Witmer & Singer, 1997)). It is through this feeling of Presence that the selected delegates can attend role-play events and fully immerse themselves in the problem. Many of them report how incredibly real it felt for them and how valuable they found the experience.