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Zurich helps fund VR headsets to teach Chicago kids about fires

March 12, 2020

Zurich donated fee for hosting ‘Chicago Fire’ episode to the Chicago Fire Department Foundation, which has unveiled a virtual reality teaching tool for kids.


Celebrating the debut of “The Fire Escape” VR program are (from left) Matt Gambs of Wintrust Financial Corp.; Chicago First Deputy Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt; Father Michael Pfleger; Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II; Dan Gibbons of Clayco; Deirdre Manna of Zurich North America; Edwin King of Peoples Gas; Chris Hasbrook of UL LLC (and co-founder of the Chicago Fire Department Foundation); and CFD Deputy District Chief Walter Schroeder.


Cast and crew of the hit TV show “Chicago Fire” transformed Zurich North America’s headquarters as they filmed a dramatic episode on the Schaumburg property in summer 2019. Afterward, Zurich North America CEO Kathleen Savio wanted to direct the location fee, which Zurich received from the show’s producers, to real-life fire resilience efforts.

This week, one such fire resilience effort became reality through financial and pro bono donations to the Chicago Fire Department Foundation from Zurich, Wintrust Financial, UL LLC, Peoples Gas, Ogilvy, Motorola, Clayco and others.


Saint Sabina Academy Principal Janice Wells observes students as they navigate through a virtual reality experience of a kitchen fire in a two-flat apartment.

At St. Sabina Academy, a school in the city’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the Chicago Fire Department Foundation unveiled an innovative virtual reality experience developed to teach fire safety to 4th through 8th graders.

In front of TV news cameras, a classroom of fifth graders strapped on Oculus GO headsets for “The Fire Escape,” a 15-minute immersive experience that teaches 10 steps to fire safety through a VR simulation of a kitchen fire on the second floor of a two-flat building. With goggles on, the 5th graders’ bodies shifted in their seats, their arms rising and falling, heads turning this way and that, as they virtually navigated away from the apartment they were seeing as a smoke detector sounded through their VR headsets.

“For 30 years the Chicago Fire Department has been using coloring books to teach fire safety,” Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Richard C. Ford II said at the event. “This innovative program brings fire safety training into the 21st century.”

Ford said Chicago fire officials already have fielded calls from other cities interested in learning more about this pioneering VR training program. He said the department is exploring making the program more widely available.

‘It was inspiring’

“It was inspiring to see this innovative approach to educating children about fire risk,” said Deirdre Manna, Head of Government and Industry Affairs for Zurich North America, who attended the event. “The ‘Fire Escape’ VR program starts with children, but it aligns with some of Zurich’s objectives as an insurance provider to businesses and individuals. We’re working every day to help our customers and communities shift the mindset from post-disaster response to pre-event resilience.”


Saint Sabina Academy students navigate through a virtual reality experience of a kitchen fire in a two-flat apartment.

Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor at St. Sabina, said he and School Principal Janie Wells tested “The Fire Escape” to ensure the experience would not be traumatic for the children. Their concerns were allayed.

“It’s not just a great educational tool,” Pfleger said, “it’s also going to help save lives of children and families in the city of Chicago.”

Children, Commissioner Ford noted before the event, are often the most persuasive proponents of safety for the adults in their lives.

“Oftentimes, working with adults, we find it kind of goes in one ear and out the other,” Ford said. “What we realized years ago is that if a little one comes home and says, ‘Mom! Dad! We’ve got to have a smoke detector!’ then the parent says, ‘I’ve got to go get one. This child is not going to let me sleep otherwise.’ “




See Zurich’s fire resilience resources