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In Case Of Emergency, Play Serious Games - I

Via The Christian Science Monitor

'HAZMAT: HOTZONE': Software prepares firefighters for emergencies such as chemical spills or terror attacks involving biological weapons.

Thanks to software based on the interactivity and storytelling tools of the video-game industry, the game called "Hazmat: Hotzone" is a highly realistic experience, one that veteran New York firefighter Eddie Zagajesky says is teaching him a lot about the decision making that goes on during emergencies.

"It can give you different scenarios every time you run the game," says the native of the borough of Queens. "This helps you learn to make decisions on the spot, in the middle of the scenario, as things change just like they do in real life."

"There is a cultural shift happening where designers are using video-game principles and technology to impact culture far beyond the living room," says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. "Interactive entertainment is seeping through the culture in education and corporate training in ways that will impact how people learn and how they do their jobs."

"Hazmat: Hotzone" is a computer-based training program developed by the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Working with the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY), the team uses tools of the video-game world to create what the firefighters call a powerful instructional aid for those who tackle hazardous emergencies such as chemical spills or terrorist attacks involving biological weapons. The ETC hopes to expand the software for use by a wide range of first responders, including police, medical teams, and the FBI.

In the case of "Hazmat: Hotzone," first responders are given an opportunity to "create a scenario from scratch, run it in real time, and change things as we go," says FDNY firefighter and hazmat instructor Lt. Tony Mussorfiti. The simulation allows the instructor to throw every possibility at the trainees - without putting them in harm's way, he adds. "We can give them complete sensory overload, the way it can get in real life, with all the sounds and sights. We can't put in sense and smell, yet," he says with a laugh, "but we can put in all the rest."

The software gives instructors like Lieutenant Mussorfiti the means to train people in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible, to do in real life.

"Let's pick visible gas," says Shanna Tellerman, one of the ETC's program designers, as she scrolls through the setup screens for a new game. "And we'll have six to eight people ambulatory, meaning walking, and let's say these are showing signs and symptoms, choking, tearing up. Next," she says as she moves her cursor over the possibilities, "let's choose chlorine gas."

Training first-response teams has taken on a new urgency in Manhattan after the primary hazmat response teams were decimated during the attacks on the World Trade towers. The video-game format, says Ms. Tellerman, is a natural fit for the younger firefighters who play games off the job.

But even Zagajesky, a 19-year department veteran, says he's learned from the games and appreciates what they can do.

"Once you're in the game, you feel the real situation," he says, adding that in his view, the game fills a gap between lectures and field training. "You can only show and tell so much," he says, "but if you can put them in the real situation, choose your equipment, help your victims, then maybe when it comes to the real thing, you'll make decisions that much faster."

"Hazmat: Hotzone" software has been field tested in New York and Pittsburgh, but the design team is still ironing out the final version. Hazmat: Hotzone is estimated to be completed in Spring 2007. Once completed, our goal is to freely distribute this program to fire departments across the country.