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A firefighter delivers a Go Pro of the footage captured from within the house burn.

Escape my house – a virtual reality experience

Faced with a level of public complacency, the New Zealand Fire Service wanted to take its fire safety messaging to a whole new level. While the majority of our public campaigns focus on ‘smoke alarms save lives’, we were faced with a challenge. When the smoke alarm goes off, how prepared are everyday Kiwis when it comes to getting out alive?


As part of a review of our external websites, the public told us one of the key things they looked to the fire service for was information on how to create an escape plan.

Based on this feedback, we looked to get a bigger picture of just what the problem was we needed to solve. Further research told us that fewer than two out of three New Zealanders have a plan to escape their home safely in a fire. Of those, less than a third have a detailed plan with multiple exits. Only half have an agreed safe meeting place.

So how can we get every Kiwi to understand why having an escape plan, and regularly practising it, is so important? What tools can we provide to help make that planning process easy and specific to each person’s home? Our biggest challenge? Once the tools are there, how do we motivate them to use it?

There were some facts we already knew. First-hand experience of a serious house fire makes people realise that: fire becomes deadly very fast – you need to escape quickly; obstacles can block your escape – you need more than one way out; without a safe meeting place, you won’t know if others have escaped or are trapped inside. But, too often, those who get first-hand experience of a serious house fire don’t live to tell the tale.

Many Kiwis have a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude when it comes to escaping a house fire. Plans consisted of ‘running out the front door’, with no consideration given to a Plan B if that exit was blocked. Similarly, people didn’t plan for negotiating their house in the dark or members of the household who may need extra help.

Human behaviour

When reacting to a situation, we largely rely on our previous life experiences to inform our decision making. In a state of panic, and without prior planning, people are known to make decisions that appear completely irrational in the cold light of day.

So, how can we motivate New Zealanders to create an escape plan for their home by giving them the opportunity to safely experience a serious house fire first-hand?

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer simulated environment that looks, sounds (and sometimes feels) real, or as close to real as it can get. Often, this means an experience that uses two or more of your senses, like sight and sound, that combine to fool the brain into thinking you are in a new place.

Research has shown people tend to remember VR experiences as things that actually happened to us, as opposed to something we were separate from or watching. It triggers a heightened emotional response, leaving a much more lasting impression than video. It promotes empathy and results in a higher recall of messages. People ‘remember’ it as an experience as the brain is triggered in to thinking it is in the situation.

360˚ video and VR have proven to be:

  • immersive – users wearing a headset are completely immersed in the content meaning fewer distractions and more attention to the message
  • impactful – the direct nature of VR means the intensity of experience is greater than traditional media, generating strong emotions in its users and proven to result in behaviour change
  • memorable – our brains are built to remember events linked to locations, this means that VR experiences have a much longer trace in the user’s memory
  • novel – with high media and public interest in VR, early adopters can benefit from favourable media exposure.

The production cost of both 360˚ video and VR is decreasing dramatically. This has forced other markets to make it more accessible on their platforms and, most importantly, a low cost of entry to these experiences. 360˚ video now only requires access to the most popular social platforms and a computer or smartphone. VR now only requires a smartphone and a piece of cardboard.

The Solution: Escape My House – virtual reality house fire experience

What if we created an experience that, through 360˚ video, allowed people to:

  • hear the working smoke alarms alerting them to the fire
  • see how fast fire becomes deadly so they understand why they need to escape quickly
  • see how obstacles can block their escape – need more than one way out
  • see why they need to get low, and stay low
  • be confronted with a Google StreetView image of their own house on fire and realise without a safe meeting place, they won’t know if others have escaped or are trapped inside.
”Before and After” photos shows how images from each angle are stitched together to create a 360° VR perspective.

”Before and After” photos shows how images from each angle are stitched together to create a 360° VR perspective.

Behind the scenes

What you see in the Escape My House experience is video footage of a real house fire. It is exactly what would happen if a typical Kiwi home caught fire. There were no fire accelerants used on the walls or ceiling. Everything catches fire exactly as it would in a real scenario.

Months of preparation and planning went in to setting up a controlled house burn to capture the footage needed for the experience. Initial testing was conducted at the National Training Centre in Rotorua to determine what heat extremes the cameras could sustain.

The house, in Palmerston North, was derelict and donated to the New Zealand Fire Service specifically to be used as a training opportunity. The rooms visible in the experience were dressed with second-hand furniture chosen to reflect a ‘typical Kiwi home’.

Cameras were placed strategically around the house to capture a full 360˚ view to stitch together. Experienced firefighters from around the region monitored and controlled the burn to ensure safety and that the camera equipment was able to be retrieved before the melting point. The following day, the property was razed and cleared as part of scenario training for firefighters.

The experience was then tested and trialled with New Zealand Fire Service experts, a clinical psychologist and members of the public prior to launch.

Videography of the house was taken pre-burn and later stitched together for the VR experience.

Videography of the house was taken pre-burn and later stitched together for the VR experience.

Taking it to New Zealanders

The public launch of Escape My House took place over one week in March.

‘Sneak peek’ packs were delivered to all fire stations and brigades, along with a set of cardboard goggles so our firefighters could all have the opportunity to try the experience before everyone else. Every region will be supplied with full VR kits that they will be able to use as a resource at future community events to continue pushing the escape plan message.

We partnered with TVNZ to capitalise on prime television and on demand slots to ensure we maximised our opportunities to reach as many Kiwis as possible over the course of one week. Key social media influencers were also given early access to the experience so they could promote the VR message to their followers. A limited number of cardboard goggles were also made freely available to the public.

Careful consideration was given to how we could continue to nudge people to take action over the course of the week using a range of channels. While the VR experience was the hook, the ultimate goal is to ensure people are motivated by that experience to then take the next step to create a bespoke escape plan for their home.

Once completing the VR experience, users are transferred to a newly created tool that allows them to go room-by-room through their own home, to complete a detailed escape plan. It triggers users to think about multiple escape points and also check smoke alarms. People are also able to set calendar reminders to follow up on any actions that they are unable to fix immediately.

Next steps

Success of the campaign will be measured by both attitude and behavioural change measures as well as knowing how many hits are received on the Escape My House VR experience site and then on to the Escape Planner Tool site.

While the experience is most impressive on the VR platform, the 360˚ footage is also available on mobile, tablet and desktop.

For more information, go to www.escapemyhouse.co.nz

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