At first glance, it appears the battle-tested men and women of the Orange County Fire Authority are reliving their childhood. But the sandbox-like layout at their headquarters is anything but a toy.
It starts with a photo from Google Earth. Next, the hills and valleys are carved out of sand, based on a computer program which is projected on the layout, called a SIM Table.
When it's complete, the high-tech sandbox is a virtual playbook for firefighters.
"It tries to get it as close to reality as possible," said Division Chief Mike Boyle, of the Orange County Fire Authority.
Scenarios are played out in real time or faster. In one recent test case, the City of San Clemente is about to catch on fire.
The goal of it all is to train firefighters how to position crews, and where and when to use air tankers or helicopters. When the choices are made, the program tells them if they made the right choice.
"Even though it’s just a box full of sand, just from the pressure of seeing it develop, on some level there is some anxiety in that pressure," Boyle said.
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What the program cannot do is predict which resources will be ready and available for a particular incident. The Santiago Fire was one of half a dozen fires that burned across Southern California in 2007, straining firefighting abilities. When it was over, 28,000 acres had burned and 14 homes were destroyed.
In situations like that, the SIM Table stays home and someone still has to make big decisions in the field.
"I don’t know if it will take the place of the human brain, maybe one day it will," Boyle said, with a slight smile.