A Computer Game for Real-Life Crises

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Just over a year ago, Joe Barlow, a paramedic in Illinois, spent a week testing a computer game called Incident Commander, a training simulator that gives players a lead role in managing crisis situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Days later, he used his virtual experience in a real-life situation: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was put in charge of an 800-bed hospital in Baton Rouge, La., and found that many of the decisions he made there stemmed from what he learned by playing the game.

Yesterday, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, game developer BreakAway Games Ltd. released the final version of Incident Commander free of charge to municipal emergency departments, part of an agreement with the Justice Department, which invested $350,000 in game development.

BreakAway Games put in the remaining $1.5 million toward the development.

Most cities do not have the budget for real-world emergency exercises, said BreakAway Games founder Douglas Whatley.

"Most municipalities are manned by only a handful of policemen, and a major incident only happens every few decades," he said. "There's just not enough money for training."

The game tutors players in how to build a budget and start a commissary under U.S government guidelines. The training could help prevent a repeat of the administrative fiascos after Katrina, Whatley said.

Barlow, who is now the emergency medical services coordinator and director of the Hancock County, Ill., ambulance service, agrees. Though he went to Baton Rouge trained as a paramedic, his time spent playing the game helped him look at the situation as an administrator.

His first professional instinct was to start patching people up, he said. But the game had trained him in a different set of priorities -- such as the importance of acquiring resources and setting up lines of communication.

"It gave me an understanding of the broader picture, how to manage resources to get the job done," he said in an interview yesterday. For example, Barlow said that at the Baton Rouge site, he might not have realized he needed to get triage tags for classifying patients had he not played the game.

Video games have become a common tool for simulation training exercises in fields such as emergency response and military combat.

The U.S. military uses America's Army, a free online game with more than 6 million registered users, as a recruiting tool. And with clients such as the Naval War College, BreakAway Games has developed other simulation games that recreate combat scenarios and teach troops how to look for ambush tactics used in the Middle East.

Incident Commander is not for sale commercially, though Whatley said that a public version of the game might become available.

"The scenarios really are engaging," he said. "I'd hate to say 'fun.' "

Cities interested in obtaining a free copy of the game can find more information athttp://www.incidentcommander.net.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company