Postcard From SGS 2005: Hazmat: Hotzone - First-Person First Responder Gaming

Tuesday's Serious Games Summit DC lecture, twinned the academics and developers at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center with the trainers and firemen of the New York Fire Department, and was one of the best-attended of the entire Summit.

Tuesday's Serious Games Summit DC lecture, which twinned the academics and developers at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center with the trainers and firemen of the New York Fire Department, was one of the best-attended of the entire Summit, both because of the high profile of the game being created, and, most likely, because Hazmat: Hotzone is one of the best practical examples so far of a "serious game" that can really make a major training difference.


With a lot to fit into an hour, and almost certainly the most participants in any single lecture (including Shanna Tellerman and Jesse Schell from CMU alongside three senior members of the New York Fire Department training personnel, plus an instructor and multiple FDNY firemen to run through a virtual drill on networked PCs), the pace thus had to be brisk in order to run through all of the demonstrations, and CMU's Jesse Schell, the original spearheader of the project, started things off.

The Hazmat Lowdown

Schell then presented a basic overview of the project for those not aware. It has been in development for around three years, and is actually a "mod" of the Unreal Tournament game engine, specifically designed for training firefighters to handle hazardous material. This is an especially important problem since preparing for the threat of terrorist attacks using such material is something that the emergency services in North America place a high priority on.

The particular focus of the scenario demonstrated was on a chlorine gas release in a New York subway station, but in general, Hazmat: Hotzone tries to answer the question of how computer-based training simulations can prepare for the unexpected with regard to fire department response to hazardous material. Previously, Schell pointed out by cuing a video overview of the product, those training firefighters would give a paper or PowerPoint-based lecture on the same material, but fire fighters just don't relate as well to paper-based learning compared to this mod, which has small and repeatable scenarios, still involves the instructor to ask questions and do post-event analyses, and allows firefighters on multiple computers to talk and work together to solve problems.

Although the product was initially developed in association with CMU's local fire departments, the New York Fire Department has taken it up in force, not least because it has particular need for training over possible hazardous materials and theoretical terrorist attacks. According to comments made on the video, FDNY also has a particularly apposite workforce in terms of age and experience, since 65% have been working for less than 6 years, meaning that most of those being trained are in their 20s and grew up with computers - thus, their computer familiarity can be converted into a potent learning force.

The FDNY's Angle

With that, Schell handed over to Nick Santangelo, the chief of the FDNY training program, who outlined briefly his belief in the importance of technology and training, and especially game-based training in this context. According to the chief, the New York Fire Department faces unique challenges, with 11,000 firefighters and a huge support staff, plus many special procedures based on the multitudinous types of buildings available in New York. Apparently, the FDNY has looked at lot of technology to help training, but has had "lots of first dates and only a few relationships." Santangelo also noted that the New York Fire Department has lost a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge since 9/11, and recognizes an increased need for training, advancing a hope that the whole countrywide fire service might use this kind of training in the future.

The FDNY chief then introduced instructor Tony Mussorfiti, who led a training session of a real FDNY crew in real-time during the SGS session. This was a fascinating opportunity to see the technology in action, and Tony introduced the session by explaining that the country was facing new threats such as terrorism, and had to be aware of how to deal with chemical, biological, or radiological threats even more specifically than previously, as well as conventional fire training. As Mussorfiti put it, fire fighters are very comfortable running into a burning building (though obviously not "comfortable," as such - this comment drew some sardonic banter from the members of the FDNY engine company present, one of whom quipped: "Let's not get crazy here!"), and comfortable handling medical calls, but with new threats, there's a "certain amount of hysteria" to start with. But the key is to understand: "We can handle anything", according to Mussorfiti, and having the confidence to know what to do is what Hazmat: Hotzone is designed to teach.


With that, Mussorfiti introduced the engine company from FDNY Engine 44, led by Captain John Flynn, who were responding as an average engine company of 5 firefighters and one officer to the virtual call at the subway station. For the purposes of this Hazmat: Hotzone simulation, each firefighter had his own PC (to take direct control of his avatar during the incident in a first person inside-helmet view), headsets in order to talk to fellow firefighters over the radio, and the instructor has his own terminal so that he can set up the scenario and then move around it invisibly, observing the reactions of the firemen.

Mussorfiti also ran through the basic roles of each member of the team. The officer is charged with the safety of fellow responders, and is the leader at any incident such as this. The other firefighters on the scene have different complementary roles, headed by the "chauffeur," who drives you to the job, and is the "brains supporting" the officer, coordinating radio traffic back in the engine, hooking up to get water, and dealing with any decontamination setup. Next are what is known as the nozzle firefighter and backup firefighter, obviously not quite the right naming for a hazmat situation, but who work with similar "first-in" principles in hazmat. The officer, nozzle firefighter, and backup firefighter must evaluate the situation and are the first into the incident to deal and respond. In addition, in any hazmat scenario, there is also a doorman and controlman to help provide backup, and to be on hand to extract the lead team if there are any problems.

Inside The Simulation

The Hazmat: Hotzone simulation then started, and a typed-out report giving initial information on the incident was shown to all participants, before the instructor's point of view showed us a night scene outside a subway station, with 3 realistic-looking firefighter avatars standing outside a stopped fire engine. There were two or three people depicted on the street itself, obviously coughing and in some respiratory distress, outside the entrance to a subway station, and the audience could view both instructor and officer views on two different projectors as initial radio transmissions were made explaining the situation.

The coordinating officer noted fumes and distress on the people on the street and dealt with them, mentioning that this "may be a terrorist act" and that all involved should proceed according, due to a possible chemical release, and then gathered his team together and moved their avatars down the stairs to the first subway level, where they saw further people in distress but able to move. The first-person officer view was able to move up to each victim, get them to speak (in textual form), and then choose a course of action for that victim.

Having got these victims up to the street, the three FDNY firemen descended to the subway platform level in the sim, where they saw an empty train with its doors open, and a green gas issuing from a cylinder lying on the platform. Nearby was a victim lying on the ground, and the firemen described the scene over the radio, before asking for a decontamination area to be set up and arranging to carry the victim out themselves.

At this point, instructor Mussorfiti finished the Hazmat: Hotzone session, and started to analyze what had gone on, a particularly useful part of the exercise, He asked why the officer had initially considered the problem to possibly be a chemical release (due to the multiple patients with similar symptoms), discussed how the other victims were dealt with, and also discussed the timing of the request to set up the decontamination unit.

Also pointed out was something missed in the original simulation run - that in-sim sound effects indicated that there were still subway cars running. Under this situation, it would be potentially important to stop all subway activity in and out of the station, since the movement of subway cars could both expose train users and also move hazardous gases around via air currents. This illustrated well the learning potential of such training, and though this was just one of a number of options and scenarios, the intention was clear that, after repeated training, fire personnel could potentially become as confident as handling hazmat and terrorist incidents as conventional fire incidents.


Questions, Answers

Following this potent demonstration, a final question and answer section followed featuring the previously mentioned FDNY officers, as well as an academic from the University of New York who is also an honorary battalion chief of the FDNY. The first question dealt with an important question - how did 9/11 change the way firefighters are trained? Mussorfiti indicated that, pre-9/11, trainers had to motivate the student a little harder to listen to the message. Now, he commented, "we have a motivated group of students," and an increased level of training, even for scenarios that firefighters might only face once in their lives, but might prove vital.

Questions also arose about whether realism mattered, to which it was commented that classroom-setting simulations can be good or bad, but the fact that Hazmat: Hotzone is so realistic makes it valuable - "that's what's missing from classroom training." Mussorfiti joked on the lack of turnstiles for the subway station in the simulation, though, pointing out that New York citizens are "not on trust level yet", but heartily agreed that it's the relatively realistic graphics and well thought-out mechanisms of the simulation that make it useful, and Captain Flynn also weighed in, pointing out that "everybody is getting a different but complementary learning experience."

The session ended with audience applause, and great hopes for the future of Hazmat: Hotzone. CMU's Tellerman revealed that scenarios were being extended further, so that the sim could easier train firefighters across the country, with an addition of an overturned truck chemical spill scenario, and further scenarios also under development. Interagency training was also mentioned as a big goal, and although the FDNY have been the main champion of Hazmat: Hotzone thus far, there's clearly hope that it could be immensely valuable across the entire country.


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