Emergency Evacuation Simulations

images-17Stadium evacuation simulations are popping up on the internet.  Though with some of them, you might feel inclined to question the level of realism in the event of an actual emergency.  Call me crazy, but I’m not sure these colorful robots adequately portray any sense of anxiety or urgency.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AZQ4lFLcb4

Don’t get me wrong.  I think there’s great value in simulating emergency evacuations.  I just think the creators of this video confused the terms “exiting” and “departing” with the conceptual nature of an emergency evacuation.  I’ve seen countless videos of human beings in a panicked state.  In the event of a real, human stampede, I don’t think it takes a doctorate in physics to conclude that this reenactment would hold little scientific value.

On the other hand, here’s a simulation of a bomb explosion on the lower level 3rd base line at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA.  This video was produced by Redfish Group, a software company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico focused on studying crowd movement and evacuation dynamics.

PNC Stadium Crowd Dynamics Evacuation

Since its opening in 2001, I have attended over 40 events at PNC Park (the vast majority were Pirates games, a 2005 Rolling Stones/Pearl Jam concert and even a wedding reception).  As fans will attest, the ballpark has some tremendous sight lines offering spectacular views of the field and the city.  I’ve made it a point to sit in virtually every section.  As a common spectator, I believe I have a fairly decent grasp of this venue.

The first thing I noticed about this experiment was the accuracy of the attendance figure.  Redfish could have performed a simulation using the ballpark’s maximum capacity (38,000+), but they settled on a more realistic figure near 15,000.  This lends a great deal of credibility.  PNC Park does approach sold-out status a few times a year, but it’s hardly the norm.

I also believe, in the event of an actual explosion, their estimates of people being trampled seem reasonable.  Notice how some of the simulated individuals run onto the playing field in a desperate attempt to flee the explosion.  It’s difficult to fathom how everything would play out under real-world conditions, but I think it’s safe to assume that the Redfish reenactment is vastly superior to the conditions portrayed in the soccer stadium evacuation in Dusseldorf.

Now you’re probably thinking… “Hey, wait a minute.  But there’s an actual bomb in this video.  It’s based on a real bomb going off.  Of course people are going to run for their lives.  And a slew of people are going to be trampled.”  This is true.  Next you’ll make the assertion, “People would never behave like that if the threat wasn’t overtly visible.  Information delivered via cell phones would never result in everyone simultaneously running for their lives.”

I strongly disagree with that statement.  It’s critical to note that human stampedes can result from a wide variety of triggers.  An artificially generated stampede might not come in the form of a “bomb” threat.  It could simply be an urgent evacuation order from a reliable source.  It might be relayed in the form of free food or heavily discounted merchandise.  It could be reports of a famous celebrity who appeared and is spontaneously signing autographs.  A command to evacuate could even come from a family member who’s concerned for your safety and well-being.  What if it was a phone call from your spouse who’s sitting at home 30 miles away watching a televised breaking news segment?  A stampede could stem from anything that encourages people to aggressively move toward an exit or concourse.  Anything that results in an unanticipated, sudden rush of the crowd.

The most important lesson here is this.  Nobody voluntarily participates in a stampede.  Nobody opts to willingly join a stampede.  Until it happens.  Until you find yourself engulfed by one.  This is Stampede Dynamics 101 with an emphasis on herding instincts.

The last time I checked, the scenarios I’ve presented simply aren’t on everyone’s “radar.”  And until this issue is brought to the forefront and becomes available for public consumption, the general population will remain dangerously ignorant.

Since I already referenced my hometown baseball team, here’s a final thought.  On the back of all ticket stubs is an “assumption of risk” disclaimer.  This waiver absolves liability resulting from injuries inflicted by broken bats and foul balls.  The United States federal government mandates these warnings.  I would implore legislation augmenting those disclaimers to include the following…

Cellular communication devices can be used to create artificially generated stampedes.  If you receive panic-inducing information or a message demanding an immediate evacuation, wait for official confirmation from the public address system.