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Calgary Fire Department rolls out VR tool to help kids be fire safe

Fires can happen in any home, and this year the Calgary Fire Department has seen a significant rise in the number of home fires across the city—26 per cent more year over year from 2022.

And over 30 per cent of those fires have been as a result of kitchen fires, with stoves as the primary ignition source.

Starting in September, CFD will be using a new virtual reality program to help students in Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic Separate Division schools to learn about fire safety.

“Fire safety education is the best tool we have to help Calgarians understand the risks and what they need to do in an emergency,” said Fire Chief Steve Dongworth.

“The virtual reality safety program we’re introducing today does just that, based in experiential learning and engagement.”

The VR tool is a first of its kind for fire prevention education in North America.

Students donning VR headsets will be taught about a variety of different fire hazards in the home, including grease fires and charging lithium ion battery powered devices under pillows—another common cause of house fires.

Each activity is guided with tips and teachings on screen, with the students then using VR controls to actually address the cause of fires themselves.

“You have to make some decisions as to how you know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to deal with that,” said Chief Dongworth.

For example, a grease fire in a pan on a stove would have the students use a pot lid to cut off oxygen to the fire. If students choose to use other methods that could lead to fire spreading, such as using water on that pan fire, the virtual reality environment resets and that wrong answer is removed as an option.

Students would then able to work again towards the right answer.

Chief Dongworth said that the pilot program run by CFD for the teaching tool had great feedback from users, and that the knowledge gained stuck with users.

“Participants reported being more prepared and less anxious to face fire related emergencies, and were more able to identify potential fire hazards in their homes.”

A screen shot from the Calgary Fire Department’s new virtual reality fire education program. CITY OF CALGARY

Pilot program heading to schools in fall

Chief Dongworth said that the initial round of schools that would receive the VR experience would be those in areas with higher rates of home fires.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who has been championing the development of the program since she was the councillor for Ward 3, said that it was important to engage children early and often with fire safety programs, and that those lessons go on to help other members of the household.

“It’s students a lot of the time that can stitch together the significance of a variety of concepts.”

“The fact that we are offering this in different languages allows them to be able to go home—if they’re from a newcomer family, or a long established family like mine, where my mom loves to communicate in Punjabi now as she’s aging—it becomes something that shows you that you’re welcomed in the community, and that this is how we keep each other safe.”

The VR teaching tool is being offered in seven different languages: Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog, French, Punjabi, Cantonese and English. Work is being done to add an eight language, Siksikáí’powahsin, in the near future.

Chief Dongworth said that the use of the VR tool would potentially be expanded to other settings, such as senior’s homes and to the general public.

“We’re not just targeting young people when we have these kinds of products though. A very vulnerable group is elderly folks as well, and I’m sure they will enjoy the immersive nature of this.”

“This is a product as well actually we can put on a computer for people who don’t have VR, and that really extends the reach. So we are we’re at the beginning of the journey.

“The greatest thing we could do is make this accessible to everyone. And that’s the goal.”

One of the students trying the program for the first time at CFD Station 16 on July 27, was Ariane Khouri. She opted to do her lessons in French, and said that it would make it easier for people who don’t use English as a first language.

“I feel like it’s very important they can actually feel like you’re inside of it. So like that you know exactly what to do if you’re actually inside of a real fire. And you know how to stay safe.”

She said the game like aspect would also be important to kids.

“I feel like if they see it on a game, they’re going to want to play it or do it.”

Developed as a public-private partnership, with long term support by ConocoPhillips

The program, which cost approximately $110,000 to develop, was paid by the Council Innovation Fund and ConocoPhillips.

ConocoPhillips purchased the VR hardware for use in schools, and is also paying for the approximately $5,000 in yearly maintenance costs for the program to run.

The program was developed by local companies Red Iron Labs and VizworX.

“I remember the first time Chief Dongworth and I had a conversation about bringing this to life, and I thought it was a great idea. He sold me on it in about 20 seconds. And I remember my one stipulation was that we partner with the private sector to make this possible,” said Mayor Gondek.

“So I really appreciate the Calgary fire department went and sought out local talent to make this possible.”

Chief Dongworth said that they’ve had an opportunity to show off the VR program to other fire departments across North America,

President of ConocoPhillips Canada, Bij Agarwal, said that their long-term support of the Calgary Fire Department’s efforts towards fire safety—since 2010—was a source of pride for the organization.

“It’s part of our social licence. We take a tremendous amount of pride in working in and with the communities that we operate in.”

“We have what we call SPIRIT, which is safety, people, integrity, responsibility, innovation, and technology. It’s something that we manage our work, our professional, and our personal lives by on a routine basis. And so making sure that safety is first and foremost forefront of everything that we do is is very, very important.”