10/18/2012 05:19 EDT | Updated 12/18/2012 05:12 EST

Could This Computer Game Save Your Kids From Fire?


How safe are your children if a fire breaks out?

While statistics from the United States Fire Administration show that fire is the third leading cause of unintentional injury in children under the age of 14, at least 40 per cent of all fire-related injuries involve children under the age of five. In 2007 alone, 52 per cent of all fire deaths were children under the age of four who are often too young to understand proper safety procedures when a residential fire happens.

Though fire prevention strategies for older children and adults have been relatively effective in reducing death or injury, programs to teach younger children about fire safety (such as "stop, drop, and roll" when clothes catch fire) have had mixed success. Educational programs designed to teach children about fire safety are already available. Unfortunately, they are often too expensive to use on a national scale and tend to focus on school age children instead of younger children who are more vulnerable.

Could an interactive computer game teach younger children about how to stay safe in a fire? An interactive computer game titled "The Great Escape" was developed by Winnipeg firefighter Shane Ferguson as part of the Staying Alive program. Ferguson had created the Staying Alive program and The Great Escape as a tribute to five-year old Laura Johnson. He had been one of first responders of the scene to discover her body after she died of smoke inhalation in a 1998 house fire.

Spurred by Laura's death to take action, Ferguson developed The Great Escape game with the financial support of the Winnipeg Fire Fighters Burn Fund and Cooperators Insurance Inc. Released on CD in both French and English, Staying Alive and The Great Escape have been widely praised and Shane Ferguson has received numerous awards for his fire safety efforts.

Designed so that young children could play with minimal adult supervision, The Great Escape allows them to play at their own pace with no reading required. Narrated by Mrs. Aboutfire, the game teaches children about fire safety as they are tasked with helping a playful animal (a lobster) out of different fire-hazard situations (such as a bedroom when the alarm goes off).

By guiding colourful cartoon figures through different fire scenarios, children learn right and wrong fire responses. The scenarios covered in the game include: finding a lighter, home escape routes, dealing with clothes on fire, and exiting a bedroom safely. The game also provides feedback and lets children correct their own errors in later games. The idea of making the game fun to play was to motivate children to learn about fire safety and enjoy themselves as well.

As to how well it works, a new study published in Health Psychology examined whether The Great Escape is useful in keeping younger children safe. Conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Guelph and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the study looked at 76 children ranging in age from three to six years who were tested on their fire safety knowledge using figures a specially constructed dollhouse in the research laboratory.

Children in the experimental group were then sent home with a copy of the game on a CD and parents were instructed to record how often they played the game before their return to the laboratory three weeks later. Results showed that an average 45 minutes of playing time significantly increased fire safety knowledge for young children and delivered key messages about staying safe in risk situations. Since no reading skills were needed to play the game, it also gives children a chance to learn at their own pace.

While there was no ethical way to test how these children would respond in an actual emergency, the researchers point out that The Great Escape is a cost-effective way to keep young children safe that can be made available in any setting where children can play games on a computer.

In an interview with Fire Fighting in Canada, Shane Ferguson has praised the work of fire safety groups across Canada in promoting the Staying Alive program. "I have been fortunate that there have been a lot of good people who have seen the benefit of this program and have been prepared to help out," he said. As The Great Escape becomes more widely available, perhaps there will be fewer tragedies such as Laura Johnson and all the other young children who need to stay safe.