We’ve interviewed some cool people here at Gamezebo, but it was truly an honor to chat with Steve Lanoce, an NYPD Bomb Squad detective who received the Medal of Valor for heroism during 9/11. Steve and his bomb-sniffing canine, Duke, are starring in Merscom’s upcoming hidden object game Bomb Squad: NY, where players jump into the role of the newest bomb squad recruit sent on assignment to hunt down the culprits who are planting bombs all over the city.
Merscom’s Lloyd Melnick and Joe Sewell also sat in on the interview.
It’s a pleasure to meet you Steve. Tell us about yourself, your background in the police force, and how you became a bomb squad detective.
Steve Lanoce: I’ve been on the New York City Police Department a little over 23 years now. I was formerly a housing police officer before the three departments merged, and after that I got into emergency service unit, which is a SWAT/rescue type unit. I was in that for approximately nine years, and obviously, everyone knows, 9/11 happened, and we were the first responders there.
After that I sort of needed a break, a change in scenery from everyday life in the police department. I didn’t want to go back to the same spot where I had a bunch of friends that I had lost. So I decided to go someplace different and I put an application in for the bomb squad, and I was lucky enough to be accepted. There are only about 30 of us out of 37,000, so it’s pretty difficult to get into, but when you do get accepted it’s a great honor.
What are some of the qualities and skills that you need to have in order to get accepted?
Steve: Somewhat intelligent, which I think I have. [Laughs.] You have to have a pretty calm demeanor, but yet you have to be forward enough to make a split-second decision of need be, and make that decision on your own. As you know, when you’re in the bomb suit and you talk that long walk towards the package that could potentially kill you, you’re by yourself and there’s nobody over your shoulder to help you make that decision so you have to do it all on your own.
What are some of the scariest situations that you’ve found yourself in?
Steve: Maybe three or four years ago, in the middle of winter, probably January, February, there was a pretty good snow storm, it was in the middle of the night, about 2 o’clock in the morning. A 24-hour check-cashing place had been attempted to be robbed, and they didn’t get any money out of the place because of the security booths that they had, but the would-be suspects placed a bag, or a little satchel bag right on the counter and said, "Well, we’re not getting money so we’re gonna blow you up." They ran out of the store. We got called over there, it was my turn to be in the suit that night, and I had to walk across a pretty wide street in the snow, in the suit.
"Basically, I’m overheating in the suit, it’s freezing, snowing outside so the front of my face mask got very fogged up. I went inside the store and took a peek inside this bag, which was partially opened, saw what appeared to be four sticks of dynamite, a bunch of wires going into it, and a digital clock timer attached at the front. That was pretty enlightening moment. I mean, it turned out after the fact to be a hoax device made to look like a bomb but it actually isn’t a bomb, but it sort of wakes you up.
Tell us about your 9/11 experiences.
Steve: I was assigned to the emergency service unit, which is basically, again, a SWAT/rescue team. One minute we’re doing SWAT, the tactical entries, and the next we’re doing rescue maneuvers. Our unit actually did the interior rescue that day. There were five teams assembled of the guys that were working that responded down there. I was on one of five teams. Three of the teams were all killed that went inside, and two teams made it out, which I was luckily enough to be on one of them.
After the collapse of the south tower, our team was trapped, and we figured out a way out after, you know, getting debris and everything off of us. And it turned out, our team was the one who found the Survivors Staircase. It was actually an escalator and a set of stairs connected to it. The escalator obviously was out at this time, but the stairs were still intact. We found our way out through the rubble to get out, but as soon as we started making our way out, we observed a lot of people coming out from the north tower. So instead of just leaving, we formed a human chain and escorted as many people as we could out before the second tower collapsed.
And you were awarded the Medal of Valor for that.
That’s amazing. I feel so thrilled to be speaking with you.
Steve: Thanks. You know what, it was a very lucky day and I was just doing what I was trained to do. I’m just happy that I had a lot of training in my background, because you know what, when you’re in a situation like that sometimes you don’t think; instincts take over, and if you’re well-trained, you go with your instincts and what you can do, and you don’t think about it. It just works. It just happens.
Your canine partner Duke, he came to you after you joined the Bomb Squad?
Steve: Yes. I was in the bomb squad probably two or three years. At that point I had close to 20 years on the job, and my commanding officer was a little hesitant about giving me a dog because he knew that I could retire within the year, but I pleaded and convinced him that I wasn’t leaving, which, I’ve proven that, I’ve stayed past 20. And finally after enough prodding, he let me get the dog, which is great.
How did the two of you come together?
Steve: He actually came from a program called Puppies Behind Bars. It’s a non-profit program that puppies and puts them in the prison system with the well-behaved (so to speak) prisoners, and they raise them from approximately eight weeks old until anywhere from 10 months, which is when I got Duke, to a year and a half, depending on the dog’s training. And they go out to either be guide dogs or handicapped companions.
In my case, Duke came out to be an EDC, which stands for explosive detection canine. I got him at 10 months, started training him, and he was ready to go probably four or five months later.
Is Duke your pet as well? When you retire will he retire with you?
Steve: Absolutely. I take him home every day. I go to work, he goes to work; I go home, he goes home with me. When I do retire, he will be a lazy, fat, backyard dog. [Laughs.]
Nice! We’ve talked about some really heavy stuff, so let’s change directions. Are there any celebrities or interesting people that you’ve gotten to meet as part of your job?
Steve: Oh, absolutely. I have pictures too to prove it, or nobody would believe me! Carrie Underwood from American Idol, country singer. I met Glenn Close through Puppies Beyond Bars. Robin Williams. A whole bunch of baseball players, whether it be Yankees or Mets or visiting teams.
Just recently, me and Duke met Paul McCartney. He was playing at City Field, which is where the Mets play, and we swept the stage [for bombs]. When he has a concert that night he’ll go out maybe three or four hours before the concert, go out and do some warm-ups and sound checks and everything else, and that took a while. And we’re sweeping the stage, sweeping behind the stage, and we’re inside the tunnel when he’s leaving the stage to go to his dressing room or wherever he was going to. He sees me standing with the dog and he stops for a little chit-chat. "Are we safe, are we good, can I perform tonight comfortably…"
He’s a big animal lover isn’t he, Paul McCartney?
Let’s talk about the game now. Tell me how you became involved with video games and the entertainment industry.
Lloyd Melnick (Chief Customer Officer at Merscom): It’s actually an interesting story. I knew Steve – through fifth grade were together in the Bronx, and I moved to Westchester and we still hung out a little, and I think we probably lost touch about 30 years ago. Through a couple of mutual friends and Facebook, I just felt that I wanted to reconnect. And when I was Googling him found out what he had been doing, and I thought, "Wow, this is really amazing." And I also thought, "This would make an interesting game."
I got back in touch with him and we met for dinner, and one of the things I mentioned was, would he be interested in starring in a game? And Steve was interested, and I brought the idea back [to Merscom].
I’m on the biz/dev side as you probably guess. I don’t produce, I don’t design games, but I proposed the idea, and Joe, the producer for the game, kind of ran with it, and that’s pretty much how it got started.
Joe Sewell (Producer at Merscom): Lloyd came to us with the idea and we thought it was a good fit for the casual market, with things like Righteous Kill doing really well and all of your major cop shows on TV, it just fit the genre really well, and it was an interesting story, with a more human side to it – well, I guess you could say more animal side of it with Duke. It really fit well. It was almost like Marley & Me meets CSI.
Steve, what was going through your head when you got the invitation to be in a video game?
Steve: I thought it’d be great. It’d be fun, a helluva lot easier than getting in a suit and having to diffuse a bomb, let me tell you that.
Were you a gamer at all beforehand?
Steve: No. I mean, I have three children, 10, eight and five, so my game time is very limited, you know. I don’t get much down-time when I’m home, but I do a little strategy-type stuff. Command & Conquer, things like that.
What has your first video game experience been like so far? What kind of stuff have you been doing?
Steve: I’m doing a little voice-over. That’s been interesting to say the least. They’re trying to really extract my New York accent to make it totally authentic. I don’t know, do you think I got it or what?
Yeah, it sounds like I’m talking to [NYPD Blue character] Andy Sipowicz!
Steve [laughs]: Fugeddabout it!
Joe: We went to New York. I got a chance to tour around where Steve works a little bit, take a look at the vehicles, some of the different tools they use on the job. Some of it we were able to incorporate into the game; some of it doesn’t quite work as well in the casual market, but overall we really had a nice chance to sit down with Steve, get as much feedback about him, Duke, what they do, and try and incorporate what we can into a digital game experience.
One thing that sounds interesting is the fact that you get to train Duke and increase his skills.
Joe: Yeah. Duke is used in a couple of different mini-games. There’s one mini-game where basically you’ll go through an area, sweep it using a radar-style technique as far as the sniffing , to find out where hotspots are in a location where the bombs might be.
As far as the training, every single item that you find in the scene gives Duke experience, and once he gets to a certain level, we have a mini-game where, much like what they do with Duke in real-life, you use the dog to try and sniff a path to a box that would actually have a bomb in it. Once you do that, you earn a point that you can use towards upgrading the hints system.
When you actually use Duke in the hints system, he will sniff around for a little bit and then sit down, which is what they’re trained to do. They don’t bark or anything like that; they actually sit down next to the area so their partner knows where to go. In the game, it’ll show you the hint outline on the main screen, and when you upgrade Duke he’ll take less time to sniff. The recharge meter will actually take less time, because the dogs do actually get fatigued when they’re doing these runs.
Then the third thing that you can adjust is how accurate the actual hint circle is on the screen. So you’ll get to build experience for Duke, train him through these little mini-games and then actually upgrade him so that your hint system works better as you move through the game.
That sounds like a lot of fun.
Steve: Of course it’s fun!
Joe: We tried to take the things that Steve told us and implement them in a fun way for a causal game, so taking real-life experience and turning it into something a little more enjoyable for the audience.
Lloyd: One of the things I liked about the idea that I pushed was that you’re actually partnering with a real live person, and that’s something that you don’t get to do in many games, either core or casual. A lot of people watch CSI, but what we’re hoping to capture here is that you’re actually working with Steve and Duke.
Joe: The main character that you’re actually playing is a new female detective on the bomb squad, and Steve and Duke are basically your partners on these assignments as you go out and try and hunt down the people who are setting these bombs. We’re actually seeing voice-acting from Steve, so you get a feel for who he is and what he does, and then we also tried to incorporate Duke as much as possible, so that he’s part of the actual game and somebody you constantly see on the screen too.
Steve: Just think about a younger, better looking Sipowicz.