Fire-safety training goes high tech

AMES, Iowa -- The 12-year-olds have heard it all before: "Don't play with matches." "Stop, drop and roll." "Get out and stay out." So how can firefighters get them to tune in to a safety talk?

Use virtual reality to put the children in a computer-generated fire, says Shana Smith, an assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. It will be realistic. It will be life-size. It will be 3-D. And it will be safe.

A one-year, $54,108 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will allow Smith to work with the Ames Fire Department to develop fire safety training that uses the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State. The training's goal will be to save lives.

Smith started the project in April. She hopes to start testing the training program with children in the fall.

She intends to create computer simulations of fire in an apartment building, a house and a classroom. Those simulations will be projected on Iowa State's six-sided virtual reality chamber or its four-sided virtual reality chamber. Firefighters will teach children how to react to fires in the different settings. If, for example, a main exit is blocked by fire or smoke, they'll learn how to find another exit. They'll also be able to practice their escapes.

"I think this is a very good application for virtual reality," Smith said. "It's impossible to offer training so kids know how to respond in a fire event by putting them in a fire. But we can put them in virtual reality."

Paul Sandoval, the deputy chief of the Ames Fire Department, said Smith's project will be especially useful in reaching 10- to 14-year-olds who have heard fire safety talks before.

But will a virtual fire scare the kids?

Sandoval said he doesn't think that will be the case. He said the program will be all about teaching fire safety, not about frightening anyone.