Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have designed a video game to help first responders practice handling various emergency situations.
"They'll be more experienced than they otherwise would have been because they've played it, albeit virtually, but it's better than nothing," said computer scientist Donna Djordjevich, leader of the project at Sandia's Livermore campus.
The game, called "Ground Truth," starts with a mock newscast describing an emergency. Djordjevich's team has been working on a simulated collision between a speeding car and a tanker truck that results in a cloud of chlorine being released in the middle of a city.
Then a lifelike aerial view of the unnamed city, similar to the popular "SimCity" game, appears with a green cloud emanating from the crash scene. It's up to the player to direct the response using the police and fire departments, hazardous materials crews, medical personnel and road barricades.
All the while a ticker tracks the death toll in the upper right corner and tense, ominous music plays in the background. The goal is to save as many people as possible.
"It has a little bit of a gaming adrenaline rush to it," said Jim Morrissey, terrorist preparedness coordinator for Alameda County Emergency Medical Services.
Earlier this month, Djordjevich gave a demonstration to Morrissey and his colleagues.
"I think it has the potential to be a great tool for all multi-disciplined emergency responders," he said.
Currently, first responders prepare for different scenarios with seminars, drills and exercises, and by getting together with other agencies around a table and role playing with scripts.
"It's expensive, time-consuming and just sort of cumbersome," Djordjevich said.
Full-scale drills require a tremendous amount of time, planning and coordination among groups, Morrissey said.
"Wouldn't it be nice if you could just sit down at a computer between ambulance calls and dive into something really complex and lifelike for 30 minutes?" he said. "A lot of our younger responders are very comfortable in the gaming world."
Sandia, along with the University of Southern California's GamePipe Laboratory, is a year into a three-year project to develop "Ground Truth." The chlorine release is the only scenario now, but other virtual emergencies and twists will be added in the coming years.
"I'm tending to focus on these weapons of mass destruction, large-scale events," Djordjevich said.
She also plans to explore emotional aspects of the game. For example, responders who lose a colleague may become distraught and less effective or begin questioning the player's authority.
It's not yet clear what "Ground Truth" will look like in the end, but Djordjevich envisions a tool that the Department of Homeland Security could distribute to responders across the country, as well as a commercial version available for use on personal game consoles.
Contact Betsy Mason at bmason@bayareanewsgroup. com or (925) 952-5026.