Video Game Gives First Responders Advance Look at Emergencies

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Imagine being a first responder heading toward a major explosion or chemical spill with memories of Sept. 11 flooding your brain. Now think again, with the benefit of having played out those scenarios and your response to them.

That's what the leaders of the National Emergency Medical Services Preparedness Initiative hopes paramedics and EMTs will be able to do. The institute, part of George Washington University, last week unveiled a video game that will allow emergency workers to hone their skills on the virtual scene of large-scale crises.

Using a $4.8 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security and taking a cue from a Defense Department game called America's Army -- which shows soldiers what life is like in battle -- NEMSPI spent two years designing the game.

Target users include paramedics and EMTs, whose training varies greatly across the country, as well as interested citizens, says Gregg Lord, NEMSPI's associate director.

Players go through four scenarios that get more complex as the game progresses. It starts with an emerging pandemic, moves to an earthquake and a sports complex explosion and culminates in the accidental derailment of a train carrying chemicals.

These are all plausible situations, Lord says. "We took that [pandemic] scenario from SARS in Toronto . . . and something similar [to the derailment] happened in South Carolina with a chlorine leak," he says. Players learn about equipment, what questions to ask victims, triage and treatment.

Lord says developing the game cost a fraction of what it takes to implement a four-day practice scenario, which can cost as much as $40 million. He says he hopes to get more grants to improve the game, which can be downloaded at for $15 after registering on the site.

-- Kathleen Hom

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