For most people, the words "themed entertainment" have frivolous connotations, but themed entertainment can be used to educate; it can even help save lives. For example, there's FDNY Fire Zone, an exhibit in New York City that uses scenery, lighting, sound, and video to teach children how to identify fire hazards in their homes and what to do if a fire should strike.

Fire Zone is, in many ways, the gift of Tishman Speyer Properties Inc., the firm that owns Rockefeller Center, where the exhibit is located. The company is a longtime supporter of the Fire Department and donated the space - located in the middle of some of the city's priciest real estate - at a rental cost of $1.00 a month, for 10 years.

The award for the project went to BKS/K Architects, because that firm conceived of the project as an interactive experience. "It is our experience," says Joan Krevlin, a BKS/K partner, "that children learn best when they participate actively in the learning process. Fire Zone offered us an opportunity to challenge preconceived notions of museum learning." She adds, "It's a really small space, with an ambitious goal in terms of content and the number of people you want to reach."

To realize this concept, Krevlin, after consulting with Pete Feller, of Feller Precision, put together a team of collaborators drawn from live theatre, including lighting designer Dawn Chiang, sound designer Tom Morse, and scenic consultant Kevin Roach, along with museum educator Jane Clark Chermayeff and Mediaworks Inc. to produce and develop the narrative, video, and interactive content.

The experience begins in the Firehouse Orientation Space, the front room of the exhibit, which faces out onto 51st Street. It is dominated by a cutaway version of the front half of a fire engine, built by Showman Fabricators (it is adapted from a fire engine built by Seagrave, the company that regularly supplies the city with such vehicles). Included on the fire engine is a pump panel display, built by FRC, which shows how vast amounts of water are produced from the engine's hoses. The surrounding wall displays feature various types of firefighters' gear. The room is lit with Lightolier units, says Chiang, who handled both architectural and entertainment lighting for the project.

The main events in this room are A Day in the Life of a Firefighter, a series of still photos projected on a white perforated metal screen that shows visitors how firefighters systematically and continuously prepare for a fire, and Race to the Fire, a film that takes visitors from the firehouse alarm, through a trip down crowded New York streets, to a fire scene. These film/video sequences were created by Mediaworks (The company's other contributions in this part of the exhibit include Power of Fire, a video loop of major fires displayed on a plasma screen that faces the street, and interactive media kiosks that encourage visitors to learn about the responsibilities of engine and truck companies, and to explore the uses of firefighters' equipment). The video is edited to create a sense of tension as the fire engine nears the trouble spot; meanwhile, alarms and lights go off in the space, and the sounds of moving vehicles are broadcast. Visitors sitting in the fire engine feel the rumble of movement (from Clark Synthesis TST-329-f shakers and a Sunfire subwoofer placed under the floor) while fans create the sensation of rushes of air, as experienced in a moving vehicle.

Morse added these in-house sound effects for this sequence and also worked on the video soundtrack. "A lot of the dialogue was buried under the noise [of the moving vehicle during filming]," he says, so the designer did some additional dialogue recording, putting the performers (actually, real firefighters) in the cab of a fire engine, recording their lines in a similar environment, then looping in the new lines.

As the video ends, the wall in front of the fire engine opens up, visitors are met by a real firefighter in full gear, then enter the area known as Escape From a Fire. This is a small, shoebox-shaped room designed as a collage of charred furniture from various conflagrations. A series of five videos are projected on the walls in which characters recount stories of how they escaped from fires in their homes, with special attention paid to how those fires originally got started (the live firefighter also discusses the moral of each story with the visitors). As each story unfolds, lights come up on a different part of the room, revealing the fire's cause (an unattended stove, a bunch of knocked over candles), accompanied by flame effects, and the sounds of crackling flames, fire alarms, and other realistic details. Visitors then exit via a dark, smoke-filled "escape corridor," into the Empowerment Zone, where they receive blueprints for escape planning and making their homes safe from fires. The final stop is a gift shop, where they can purchase a number of specially designed FDNY items; proceeds support the operation costs of the Fire Zone.

Roach says that when he first got involved with the project, the room was conceived differently, with visitors seated on a second level looking down into the space. "It was exciting to collaborate with Joan and her staff; in that first meeting with Dawn and the others, we moved toward a more open space, using the room's height for lighting and projection angles, or rigging." In addition, he says, this concept helped make the overall effect more seamless. "Instead of projection screens, we convinced Mediaworks to try projecting video directly onto the scenery. I didn't want to telegraph to the audience that we were using projections or video." Roach adds that much attention was paid to the scenic treatments so that the projection areas were painted with subtly lighter values; when you walk into the space, you don't see a projection surface. His ideas were then adapted by Krevlin to fit into the architect's overall design. Jamie Fagant was Roach's assistant designer.

There were other issues, as well, says Roach. In the smallish space, it was a challenge to find positions for all equipment, allowing the video and lighting enough throw space, and placing speakers in the right location for each sound effect. Fortunately, Roach adds, laughing, his Off Broadway career was the perfect preparation for the job: "My experience with odd, smallish rooms paid off here." Chiang adds that the lighting is hung on an overhead pipe grid. "I use all the available space on it," she notes. Morse says, "There are no general speakers hung in that room. When the fire engine alarm goes off, it goes through the horn on the wall." In fact, he adds, every effect is given a specific speaker location: "It's important to do that in a small space." Of course, this kind of meticulous work takes time: "We spent 200 hours in that room doing the programming," he says.

Chiang says the lighting fire effects were done with Gamproducts TwinSpins. "Power in the space was limited to 400A, three - phase," she says, adding, "We were at the maximum. We needed to use the multiplex approach to get twice as many channels on the same number of dimmers. I used 32 TwinSpins, but I couldn't assign 32 dimmers to them, so Joe Tawil (of Gamproducts) built adaptations for them, which converted them to DMX control." The effects are created by using "a single flame template, with Rosco Image Glass added. The glass bends and distorts the image as the light is going through the flame template."

There are other effects, as well. In a kitchen scene, flames appear from an unattended stove. The flame effect consists of small pieces of China silk rising from the stove (it is blown by a small fan) while lit from below by an MR-11 unit with an orange-yellow dichroic glass filter. (The effect was built by Hudson Scenic Studios, the company that did the scenery for the room.) At one point, visitors, searching for the origins of a fire, touch a hot door. The door is covered with a thermal blanket material. "Jeff Goodman, our technical director, found it," says Chiang. "The material is used to wrap around 55-gallon drums, which are stored outside, to keep them from freezing." Smoke effects are created by two MDG Mini-Max foggers.

Overall, adds Chiang, the light plot consists of 97 Source Fours, 11 Source Four PARs, nine Strand Bambinos, and eight L&E Ministrips. There is also a three - circuit, chasing ropelight, used for a party scene, and candle effects, both of which were identified by David Rosenfeld of Hudson Scenic.

Morse says the speakers used in both rooms are EAW JF60s and JF80s ("They're just fabulous," he says), along with QSC Cx-254 and Cx-404 amps and two Akai 5000 samplers, with TOA speakers mounted in the escape corridor, and Sunfire subwoofers from Carver ("They're incredible, just a little bigger than a breadbox," he adds.) The many sound effects, which include flames, sirens, radio dispatches, footsteps, party noises, music, and television, were created using Digidesign Pro Tools. "We worked with Masque Sound," he says, adding, "I used John Kilgore and David Bullard to do the recording." Getting the correct effects was not always easy, he adds. "The Fire Department was very particular; they'd listen to an effect and say, `That's not one of our sirens.' I used a location engineer, Dan Wojnar, who works with me on Broadway, to go out to Randall's Island [where the Fire Department trains personnel] to record the fire engines, and to go to real fire houses to pick up the right sound effects." Playback of the sound effects is done with LSC's Wild Tracks system. Kurt Fischer, sound designer for the Broadway musical Rent, programmed the Wild Tracks system.

As for control, the architectural lighting is run off of an ETC Unison system. Entertainment lighting is controlled by an ETC Expression 3 board, transferred to an LPC playback controller; in all cases, ETC Sensor dimmers are used. All systems - lighting, sound, and video - are run using Conductor, a PC-based show control system from Avenger. Installation and programming of the control systems were implemented by Scharff-Weisberg.

All of the designers involved in the project walked away from it with a renewed respect for the members of the FDNY. "It was incredible to work that closely with them and see what they face every day," says Roach. Adds Morse, "The night after The Fire Zone opened, they had a party for some of us who worked on it. Deputy commissioner Lyn Tierney was there and she actually broke down in tears, saying that this exhibit might save lives."