THE MAGAZINE

Games Aid Emergency Management

By Joseph Straw

New game-based training simulations are designed to reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of disaster planning.

Emergency management is a training-intensive business. For security professionals, civilian administrators, and senior first responders, that usually means daylong, meeting-based tabletop exercises to drill on procedure and decision making. Less often, managers and volunteer “victims” take to the field to test plans and make sure their equipment works.

Both options are critical but also costly and time consuming. A cheaper, more flexible, and likely more popular option is emerging, thanks to the technology originally created for home PCs and Xboxes: game-based interactive training simulations, often referred to as “serious games.” (See “Gaming Gets Serious,” October “Intelligence” for more on this topic.)

While the games feature the strikingly realistic graphics of their recreational counterparts, trainees hoping to play a first-person shooter armed with a fire hose instead of a Gatling gun will be disappointed. The new wave of programs focuses on critical decision making.

A new entrant is Zero Hour, which simulates a mass anthrax attack. Players must make critical operational decisions and respond to questions from an array of fictional characters who report to an inoculation center, all while fielding simulated phone calls and requests for added equipment. Zero Hour was developed through a collaboration between the Chicago Health Department, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the University of Illinois.

In 2005 Carnegie-Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center rolled out “Hazmat: Hotzone,” a first-person response scenario game field-tested with firefighters in Pittsburgh and New York City.

A commercial spin-off of the Hotzone project, SimOps Studios now sells its own 3-D simulation design software catered to first responders, dubbed Code3D, and consults users on developing their own training simulation with customized landscapes, scenarios, and tracking.

Now, the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory is developing “Ground Truth,” which in its current prototype simulates the initial response to a chemical tanker truck leak from the perspective of the event manager.

Like Zero Hour, Ground Truth opens with a rendered, cable-news-style screen shot of an overturned tanker spewing toxic fumes. Then, the main game interface shows an urban landscape in three dimensions.

When the player deploys the simulation’s hazmat response team, the game’s 20-minute clock starts ticking. The game does not address the precise details of containing the spill, but rather gets into how responsible parties should manage response and evacuation to limit casualties, says Sandia investigator Donna Djordjevich.

Like pieces on a game board, the player deploys first responders, staying mindful of their capabilities and equipment relative to hazards. The player can order personnel to close or contra-flow streets for evacuation, evacuate civilians by area, and even temporarily shelter-in-place depending on risk of exposure.

Throughout, performance is graded on a “progress thermometer” that resides on the side of the screen. When the clock runs out, the player is scored based on the number of casualties sustained, both among the game’s civilians and among first responders, according to Djordjevich.

Sandia’s “Game Technology-Enhanced Simulation for Homeland Security” grew out of the lab’s ongoing analysis of “concepts of operation” in homeland security, and Djordjevich’s own study in game design at the University of Southern California, which is contributing to the game’s development.

Ground Truth is in its second year of development; it’s expected to be ready for full release, either commercially or to government agencies, by 2009.

Djordjevich plans to expand the game to include additional scenarios. A simulated biological attack scenario, which would manifest itself over a greater time frame, and over a larger area, will be developed in the project’s final year.

Further, Djordjevich plans to make the game smarter. While it does not incorporate common snafus like communication problems or equipment failures, an “intelligent” game will detect a skilled user and introduce added challenges, like a secondary attack targeting first responders, for example. In the event of decisions that prove fatal, the game’s simulated first responders may even start to disregard the player’s orders.

 

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