Serious game teaches emergency responders

Real-time ‘Incident Commander’ is based on the National Incident Management System

In testimony before the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff lamented the lack of real-time situational awareness after Katrina hit New Orleans.

“In any disaster, situational awareness requires real-time access to accurate, firsthand information,” Chertoff said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency struggled to respond to Katrina because it lacked full situational awareness of areas with the greatest needs, Chertoff said. Without that knowledge, FEMA was unable to get aid into the most affected areas or track shipments of supplies to ensure that they reached the people who needed them most.

Real-time situational awareness is difficult to achieve, but a game known as “Incident Commander” could help public safety officials improve their response to emergencies. “Incident Commander” is based on the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a command and control infrastructure for emergency preparedness.

President Bush’s Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5, issued in February 2003, authorized the creation of NIMS. The Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice provided funding to BreakAway, a game maker based in Hunt Valley, Md., to develop the software.

“Incident Commander” represents a subgenre of real-time educational software that has begun to overtake traditional training videos and role-playing exercises. The subjects of serious games run the gamut from interactive teamwork exercises and nurses’ training to specific aircraft landing crew protocols. The most widely known of these is a freely distributed Army training and recruitment game, “America’s Army,” which ranks among the top 10 most-played online games.

“You can apply your own procedures from a local department perspective, and you can implement those procedures,” said Lucien Parsons, the game’s producer. “Incident Commander” players manage almost all aspects of a crisis, including distributing resources, establishing a base of operations and controlling emergency workers. The game also forces players to deal with factors that are beyond their control.

BreakAway designed the game for multiple players, but one person can play it alone. Players respond to a chemical spill, a bomb in a federal building or a school shooting. “Incident Commander” has no hurricane scenario, but the company is developing one, Parsons said.

Parsons added that Justice wanted an affordable means for first responders to practice using NIMS. Live simulations are expensive and difficult to stage in populated areas. The low-cost game was BreakAway’s answer to the agency’s requirement.

Experts in law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medicine and other disciplines have been involved in the development of “Incident Commander” from the beginning, said Cathy Strabala, executive program manager at Justice’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center Northwest. The center’s employees are helping the company test the software. Experts post feedback on a message board so developers can interact with the testers.

BreakAway also consulted many public safety experts during the game’s development phase. “They provided the expertise, but we were the ones to create the product,” Parsons said.

The company has not publicly released “Incident Commander.” Justice has 40,000 copies of the game, which it has been testing since the beginning of the year. But the game will eventually find its way to firehouses, police stations and emergency response stations nationwide, Parsons said.

Parsons said he already has some evidence of the game’s usefulness. Joseph Barlow, an emergency medical technician, told company officials that he trained on “Incident Commander” before he went to Baton Rouge, La., after Katrina to help set up an 800-bed hospital. He was quickly promoted and became the logistics officer for the entire facility. Barlow said the game simulation taught him how to set up and operate within an incident command structure.

Disaster Dynamics: Learning from the decision game

“Disaster Dynamics” is a hurricane disaster game that centers on a generic, 5-square-mile barrier island community that resembles communities along the Gulf Goast. Unlike “Incident Commander,” however, it simulates long-term consequences by showing how decisions can affect a community’s infrastructure and character years later.

“We want the people playing to…step back from the evacuation planning, look at the big picture and think, ‘What is my community going to look like in 20 years, and how are the decisions I make now going to affect it?’” said Seth McGinnis, associate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the game’s lead developer. Researchers were developing the game the year before Hurricane Katrina hit.

As many as four players connected via the Internet play roles as important members of the community, such as shopkeepers or hotel managers. They vote on future plans for the community, and the game shows the long-term effects of those decisions.

Developers designed “Disaster Dynamics” to train undergraduate students who are studying to be urban planners and disaster managers. The game is free for download at


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