GW video game simulates real emergencies

Treat the victims of biological attacks, triage patients in an earthquake and escort them to the hospital: This may sound like the typical job of an Army medic, but it is also what happens in a new video game designed by GW.

GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute teamed up with Virtual Heroes Inc., a game-development firm, this year to create “Zero Hour: America’s Medic,” which is expected to be released to the public this fall. The game serves as a training tool for emergency first responders across the United States.

“Zero Hour” offers more than mere entertainment value; it also allows players to gain a better understanding of how to conduct an emergency response. As they navigate the fictional city of St. Lillo, gamers take on the role of either an emergency medical technician or a paramedic who must weather four of the 15 official United States National Planning Scenarios: a biological attack, an earthquake, a chemical attack and a large explosion.

Virtual Heroes Inc. specializes in designing games that offer more than recreational play to stimulate awareness of a particular issue or provide professional training. They partnered with GW in 2006 on the project, which was undertaken as part of the National Emergency Medical Services Preparedness Initiative and funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The initiative had two primary objectives, studying the preparedness systems of America’s largest cities and then developing a training program for the EMS personnel in those cities to help them overcome any operational gaps.

A final report will be issued in the next two months shedding light on disparities in preparedness among the cities, said Gregg Lord, director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and a senior policy analyst with the GW Homeland Security Policy Institute.

The scenarios in the game become progressively more serious and difficult to control as they advance. A player can re-examine and replay any scenario once the game has been successfully completed.

The operational aspect of emergency responses is emphasized, but not to the neglect of learning how to perform appropriate medical procedures, Lord said.

“It’s about situational awareness, identifying the potential for a major health problem and engaging the public,” Lord said.

This game is far from fictional – elements of the real world are present. The street names of St. Lillo are based on real people, and the city itself is named after Carlos Lillo, the New York City Fire Department’s senior lieutenant in charge of special operations at the time of his death on Sept. 11.

The game has a practical purpose for the researchers themselves, generating demographic data on those EMS professionals by inquiring whether players are emergency responders in their real lives before they play the game. Lord said such comprehensive information is currently lacking because state certification varies and no federal agency physically counts them.

The game was not intended as a recruiting tool, but Lord thinks it “could very well become one.”

To play the game once it is released this fall, members of the public must register and pay a $14.95 download fee, which is directed back to the National EMS Preparedness Initiative.

Lord said he realizes that using a video game to train emergency responders is fairly novel, but he thinks it is a forward-thinking innovation.

“Instead of having just another education program, we knew it could be something different,” Lord said. “So we created a game that would allow people to interact with a virtual environment.”

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