From coloring books to virtual reality, Chicago Fire Department upgrades fire education teaching tools

The Fire Department Tuesday unveiled the virtual reality headsets it will begin using to educate kids about fire safety.

SHARE From coloring books to virtual reality, Chicago Fire Department upgrades fire education teaching tools
Students at St. Sabina Academy try out virtual reality headsets that the Chicago Fire Department unveiled Tuesday as an educational tool to instill the basics of fire safety in kids.

Students at St. Sabina Academy try out virtual reality headsets that the Chicago Fire Department unveiled Tuesday as an educational tool to instill the basics of fire safety in kids.

Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The Chicago Fire Department is swapping out coloring books for virtual reality headsets as its preferred educational tool to instill fire safety basics in the minds of elementary and middle schoolers.

Fire Commissioner Richard Ford unveiled the technology Tuesday during a demonstration at St. Sabina Academy with a group of 5th and 6th graders who strapped on the headsets to find themselves getting out of bed to the sound of a beeping smoke detector. 

Students, faced with several options to escape, used a handheld device pick what to do next.

“It feels real,” said 11-year-old Daila Wardell. “I ran downstairs,” she said, safely avoiding a kitchen that was ablaze.

“It gives you the experience of knowing how to get out of a fire but in a way that doesn’t traumatize the kids,” said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford, whose voice narrates the options in the virtual setting. 

“It is the first of its kind,” Ford said proudly during a news conference at the Auburn Gresham neighborhood school. “This innovative program brings fire safety training into the 21st century.”

The program was developed by the Chicago Fire Department Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to assisting the mission of Chicago firefighters. The roughly $1 million program includes 90 headsets. 

Fire departments across the country have reached out wondering if they, too, can use the program, Langford said. The Foundation plans to license the program so it can be swiftly shared with other municipalities, he said. 

Dubbed “The Fire Escape,” the 15-minute immersive experience was designed for kids from 4th through 8th grades and features a fire in a typical Chicago two-flat.

“This program I think is going to save the lives of children and families in the city of Chicago,” St. Sabina Pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, said Tuesday.

One possible side effect of virtual reality: motion sickness. A student vomited during the experience — though it’s unclear exactly when the student began feeling ill.

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