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Firemen’s CD on Terrorism Will Aid 1st Responders

Times Staff Writer

Suspenseful music builds as a man with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes shows a fake ID and pushes a cart of fire extinguishers laced with deadly chemicals into the downtown Santa Ana federal building.

Once inside the high-rise, he installs the extinguishers, then strides from the building, tossing his uniform behind a strip mall. Suddenly, smoke billows from windows in the high-rise and workers pour down the staircase, scrambling to make it to the front doors.

With its vivid graphics and soaring music, the interactive CD bears all the characteristics of the latest Xbox game, complete with movie trailers, bonus footage and varying camera angles. But it’s not a game.

Titled “Responder 911,” it was designed by a pair of Santa Ana firefighters to help colleagues, police and medical response teams learn the basics of being the first to arrive on the scene of a terrorist attack.

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“Police officers go out on murders and we go out on fires, but we all don’t go out on terrorist attacks every day,” said Jim Melton, 51, an Azusa resident who was one of the partners on the CD. “We’re giving them situations to think about and reminders of what to do.”

Melton and Jon Muir, 33, of Huntington Beach, firemen who once rode on the same engine, spent $75,000 of their own and two years of their free time turning the dry governmentese of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 99-page terrorism handbook into something a little less sleep-inducing.

The CD includes a sample test to help viewers practice for the FEMA exam that must be taken to earn a certificate for terrorism training. Though law enforcement agencies are not required to obtain FEMA certificates, the federal agency says its guidelines offer a universal game plan for the first agencies arriving on the scene of a disaster.

Early reviews of the CD have been encouraging.

“It’s like when you buy a new computer and get all those manuals with it, and you don’t want to read those manuals but want to know everything about it,” said Raul Luna, a former police officer for 30 years who now works as a staffer for Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove.) “It’s a very, very simple program. The teaching method they use is visual.”

There is wide agreement that while the FEMA booklet spells out the rules of the road, it is a tough, unforgiving read. “You can’t relate to it because it’s dry,” Melton said. “It’s just another book in the library. The book talks about it; we show it to you.”

The CD had its debut in the Santa Ana Fire Department, where officials said they plan to use copies of it to train about 270 firefighters so they can be certified by FEMA. The firemen, who formed their own company to make the software, are letting their department use the program free of charge but hope to sell it to other agencies to pay down their debt.

The disc is a self-study program with audio, text and graphics to accompany moving and still footage of real incidents, practice drills and enactments. As with a video game, viewers are pulled into scenarios and urged to consider their surroundings and evaluate their options. Using the FEMA book as its boilerplate, it allows viewers to choose the proper responses to situations and allows them to see the consequences of a hasty or wrong decision.

The two firemen even added a decontamination method not discussed in the FEMA manual. Two fire engines are parked parallel to each other to provide two streams of cascading water to set up a cleansing wall that victims can run through as they flee a building.

“The fastest, down-and-dirty way to get rid of chemicals is to decontaminate them with what we have,” Melton said. “Every city in our nation has water.”

Don Jacks, spokesman for FEMA, said new training ideas are constantly being introduced to the agency, which receives hundreds of ideas each month. He said his department has not yet seen the software.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, police and fire departments have stepped up training, but the organizations typically train independently of each other, which could cause communication problems when multiple agencies arrive at the scene of an emergency. The aim of the CD is the same as the FEMA text: Get everyone on the same page. The firefighters actually started working on the CD before that fateful day two years ago. But when they woke up to the attacks, they realized their project was suddenly more than an academic exercise.

“This is something we have to do, because if this should happen in our backyard, we need to know what to do,” Muir said.

The project seemed easy and fitting. Muir, who has worked for the Santa Ana department for 13 years, had experience and knowledge of computer systems and research design. Melton, a 20-year department veteran, had studied terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

But their naivete surfaced quickly. They’d hoped they could simply grab the theme music from “Armageddon” or “Black Hawk Down” as a lead-in for their CD. No dice, because of copyright law. They asked for detailed information on bombings in Oklahoma and New York and a nerve gas attack in Tokyo. That didn’t work either, because officials were tight-lipped about details.

The pair eventually attended a three-week training course with the Marines and spent two years at libraries and delving through newspapers to research bombings. They also spent hours watching video games to get ideas. Finally, they hired a Hollywood musician to write music.

Depending on the reaction to “Responder 911,” the two plan to create more training products. While they figure it will be a break-even business at best, they also see it meeting a need.

“We want to keep thinking of creative ways to train others,” Muir said.


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