Virtual Search and Rescue

A new simulation game tries to show firefighters the advantages of properly using a thermal imaging camera to locate victims.

Ladder Company 10. I have a two-story apartment building: Confirmed fire with multiple entrapment second floor. I need you to gain access through the second floor window Side B bravo and initiate search.

You are Fire Capt. Johns. Your fire chief has just radio-relayed your orders. You ascend a ladder to the second floor, carrying more than 50 pounds of equipment with Probational Officer Ed in tow. You break open a locked window and enter a room that feels like a furnace. A smoke-filled, gloomy haze blankets the limited vision your respirator mask allows. How can you hope to locate the victims in this smoke and heat?

Last May, MSA presented this scenario when it unveiled a video game simulator titled "Firefighter Challenge: Thermal Response," at the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis. Developed in partnership with Sim Ops Studios, a company whose mission is to use video game technology to deliver cutting-edge training simulations for emergency responders, the video game was created to market MSA's Evolution® 5200 Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) and demonstrate its proper use to firefighters.

Firefighters often use TICs, which employ a type of infrared imaging on a monochromatic display, to see through smoke and locate trapped victims and fire hotspots. TICs were originally developed for military use during the Korean War and began to slowly migrate into industrial applications in the 1990s. Another example of industrial use is in building construction, where technicians use TICs to identify and eliminate heat leaks in cooling and heating systems.

The Objective
Similar in maneuverability to the famed computer game Doom, the MSA simulation is presented in a first-person-shooter perspective. The player must ascend a two-story ladder, break through the locked window of a burning apartment, and, before running out of air, find and rescue victims and locate the source of the fire.

Susie Sapsara, manager of eMarketing at MSA, said since the game's introduction, it has been played more than 25,000 times by many firefighters across the country, the majority of whom have responded positively to the game. "The overwhelming response was how realistic it is. They couldn't say enough about how real the experience felt to them. Their least favorite part of the game was that it was over. They wanted more," she said.

A quick glance at the game's Top 50 Scores list, available online at www.msafire.com, confirms the range of fire departments whose personnel have played the game. The list extends as far south as the Red River Army Depot Fire Department in New Boston, Texas, and up to the Parkland County Fire Department (PCFD) in Alberta, Canada.

PCFD Lt. Brendan Blazeiko currently holds a top 50 score. Based on his experience in the field, he said he felt it was a good training tool for rookie firefighters. "I thought the graphics were very realistic. I would definitely recommend it to others. It's a good way to show them what to expect before actually putting them in there," he said.

Behind the Simulation
Shanna Tellerman, chief executive officer at Sim Ops Studios, said the game grew from the experience gained, while still part of Carnegie Mellon University's Technology Center, by collaborating with the New York Fire Department in the creation of its first instructor-based prototype simulator, titled Hazmat Hotzone. With the eager international interest this prototype attracted, a separate company was formed that began seeking out further uses for this technology, leading to the collaboration with MSA. "Ultimately, they came to us and said, 'We have this idea we've been wanting to do for a long time about a game that would show the way our thermal imaging camera works.' We had a lot of experience working in games and working with firefighters, and creating these virtual training experiences, so it was kind of a natural fit," she said.

A newer version of the game has been released that randomly changes the number of victims and their location, as well as the location of the fire, each time the game is played. Also, Sapsara said there are plans to develop similar training simulations for other products. "We're going to really be looking to leverage that technology, not just for thermal imaging, but for a lot of our products. We're moving toward a more 3D-realistic type of environment for training purposes and things like that," she said.

Sim Ops Studios has also continued to develop other uses for its technology. Currently, the company has a subscription-based training service titled "Sim Ops Academy," available at www.simopsstudios.com, which provides different hazmat emergency scenarios and tracks users' progress as they complete them.

This column appeared in the December 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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