Calif. responders get virtual MCI training

By Betsy Mason
Contra Costa Times

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — A video game that simulates terrorist attacks and other major disasters could become key to homeland security.

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have designed a game to help first responders practice handling emergency situations.

"They'll be more experienced than they otherwise would have been because they've played it, albeit it virtually, but it's better than nothing," said computer scientist Donna Djordjevich, leader of the project at Sandia's Livermore, Calif., campus.

The game, called "Ground Truth," starts with a mock newscast describing an emergency. Djordjevich's team has been working on a 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 very lifelike aerial view of the unnamed city, similar to that of 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.

Currently, first responders prepare for scenarios with seminars, drills and exercises, and by getting together with other agencies and role-playing with scripts.

"It's expensive, time-consuming and just sort of cumbersome," Djordjevich said.

Full-scale drills, in particular, require a tremendous amount of time, planning and coordination between different groups, Morrissey said.

Sandia, along with the University of Southern California's GamePipe Laboratory, is one year into a three-year project to develop "Ground Truth." Currently, the chlorine release is the only scenario, but different 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 might 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 commercialized version available for the general public to use with their game consoles at home.

Copyright 2007 Contra Costa Times
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News

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