9 Investigates: Saving lives during mass evacuations

By: Christopher Heath

Updated:

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - In the last year, two Florida airports have been forced to carry out mass evacuations within minutes. 

A study at Embry-Riddle is trying to find new, faster and safer ways to help people escape in the event of a mass evacuation.

“We want to incorporate all the factors in the evacuation process, including the environment and the human factor,” Dr. Dahai Liu of Embry-Riddle’s College of Aviation told Channel 9 investigative reporter Christopher Heath.

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Liu is one of the professors leading the 5-year study of evacuations. The study, paid for through a matching grant from the Department of Transportation University Transportation Center, is designed to study how people react to a sudden evacuation in a place that they may not be familiar. 

The team, using advanced computer models, can test variables, including, crowd size, speed of movement, crowd density, number of exits and line of sight.

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“The speed of an individual person doesn’t matter anymore when the entire group is trying to get to one place,” Dr. Sirish Namilae with Embry-Riddle said. “The concept is called ‘faster is slower,’ that is when the density is low if a person wants to go faster they can, but in a crowd, if a person tries to go faster they actually slow down the crowd.”  

Taking into account these variables, the team is constructing a series of computer models. Using the school’s super-computer, the research team is looking to see why crowds choose to take specific actions and at what level does panic set in. By factoring in human nature, the team is looking at how willing people will be, under stress, to surrender individual problem solving and instead follow the crowd. 

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“Under stress what happens is that all the things that make humans wonderful and the ways we are, our adaptability our appreciation, our creative problem solving for changing social norms, that all is compromised,” Dr. Jennifer Thropp with Embry-Riddle said. “We might not search out for the best, most accessible exit, what we revert back to is how you entered, and that might not be the most efficient exit.”

The team is still in the early stages but said the basic structure of the study could yield new methods for other evacuations, including natural disasters.

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