Hi-tech ‘virtual evacuation’ with 70,000 avatars

Need a plan to evacuate 70,000 sports fans in one hour? Try rehearsing
with 70,000 avatars. That’s the hi-tech solution provided by
revolutionary new simulation software being developed in the US.

Sep 30, 2010
By Paul Jacques
Picture: Police Scotland

Need a plan to evacuate 70,000 sports fans in one hour? Try rehearsing with 70,000 avatars. That’s the hi-tech solution provided by revolutionary new simulation software being developed in the US.

Using blueprints from actual stadiums, researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi are creating virtual, 3D e-stadiums, packed with as many as 70,000 avatars – animated human forms programmed to respond to threats as unpredictably as the public. Security planners will be able to see how 70,000 fans would behave in the event of a security threat.

The avatar need not be a sports fan. The simulation includes make-believe stadium workers, first responders, even objects such as an emergency vehicle or a fan’s car. The software tracks them all, accounting for scenarios both probable and improbable.

Dubbed SportEvac, the simulation software is being developed and tested by the National Centre for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) at the university, part of the Southeast Region Research Initiative (SERRI), funded in part by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).

“SportEvac isn’t simply more realistic; it will be a national standard,” said programme manager Mike Matthews of S&T’s infrastructure and geophysical division.

Simulating thousands of people and cars can impose a huge load on software and hardware. That’s why most evacuation software applications are unable to simulate a crowd much larger than 5,000.

Beyond scaling problems, earlier simulators did not account for the many variations that make human behaviour hard to predict and human structures hard to simulate. For example, how would an evacuation be impaired in the event of a wet floor, a wheelchair or a fan fetching a forgotten purse? Unlike conventional evacuation simulators, SportEvac can plot the answers.

Like an open-source web browser, the SportEvac software is built on open, modular code. This means that if the IT department creates a module that can more accurately predict car parking gridlock, it can simply be plugged in. This allows it to be customised for any sports arena.

By simulating how sports fans would behave in the minutes following an alert, SportEvac will help security experts in planning and training and to answer key questions, such as:

•How can the stadium be evacuated in the shortest time?

•How can emergency personnel quickly get in as fans are dashing out?

•How can stadium guards and officials provide valuable information to civil responders and assist them as the evacuation unfolds?

“Interoperability is also a key goal,” said Lou Marciani, NCS4 director, who serves as the S&T projects principal investigator.

Stadium security officers can use SportEvac to rehearse and refine procedures with first responders. During a real evacuation, guards might use the same radios as the emergency services, for example. For stadium officials with a smartphone, a ‘SportEvac Lite’ application will graphically show where fans or cars are bottlenecked.

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