Again and again, disasters strike and cause widespread panic — whether it’s fireworks lobbed into crowds during a sports event or a fire at an airport, nightclub or hotel. With a view to understanding crowd dynamics, researchers are examining whether people react to events in specific patterns and whether threats can be recognized and perhaps headed off
Simulation and Virtual Reality
No Cause for Panic!
Simulation technology is helping safety and security specialists recognize dangerous situations at public events before such situations actually happen - and to plan preventive measures.
One such researcher is Dr. Wolfram Klein, a mathematician who works at Siemens Corporate Technology (CT) in Munich. Together with his team, Klein has developed a model that simulates crowd behavior, thus helping researchers to predict where and when a critical situation may arise. Klein’s model can simulate the way in which crowds of tens of thousands of people behave. What’s interesting, according to Klein, is that “they move very similarly to liquids or gases.” Like molecules, people either attract or repel each other. For instance, family members try to stick together, while they automatically maintain a certain distance from strangers.
In addition, when people move through buildings they have to navigate around walls and other obstacles; and, of course, small, narrow spaces can lead to congestion. “Based on the principles of alternately attracting and repelling forces, we can chart human behavior and produce predictions in terms of mathematical equations,” says Klein.
Once embedded in software, such equations could help architects plan safer buildings — say a stadium, airport or trade fair hall -- by identifying which spots might give rise to dangerous situations. Klein is certain that comparatively simple procedures and planning steps could prevent many disasters. “Even setting up so-called breakwaters — in other words, artificial obstacles — would suffice to divert crowds early on,” he says.
In order to illustrate human behavioral patterns even more realistically, his team has continuously refined its simulation model. For instance, the software now not only uses statistical methods to depict the effects of a person’s age and health on their walking behavior, but also takes group interaction into consideration as a factor. Says Klein: “Elderly people move more slowly, while school children are taught to walk together in groups of two.” In addition, the Munich-based researchers have improved their mathematical calculations significantly.
Seeing Three Minutes into the Future.
According to Klein, the system is now so fast that its crowd simulations can be used to make short-term predictions. “We can tell up to three minutes beforehand what is likely to happen assuming that no one intervenes. This way, the head of operations at a facility could act quickly, for example by opening additional doors or giving precise warnings in order to influence events and prevent disasters,” he says.
This method of crowd control has already been tested in various research projects, including one carried out at Frankfurt’s central train station. Based on surveillance camera footage, the software was able to accurately predict the flow of pedestrian traffic — as well as congestion — several minutes before it occurred. The program has also been successfully used in and around the soccer stadium in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Evacuating the city’s stadium would be a dramatic challenge for the police and fire department. Although the stadium accommodates up to 40,000 people when it is full, it offers only a few escape routes. And to make matters more difficult, all of them lead through the surrounding residential areas. As a part of the REPKA project (Regional Evacuation, Planning, Controlling, and Adaptation), which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Klein’s team has adapted the simulation models in such a way that they can now be used to plan a regional mass evacuation - including paths from the stadium to Kaiserslautern's main station, park and ride facilities and bus stops.
In the future, Klein and his team also want to use this knowledge to support their colleagues in Siemens’ Building Technologies Division. To this end, in the Swiss town of Zug experts are developing dynamic fire protection solutions for buildings — so-called intelligent response systems. Christian Frey, who is responsible for innovations in Zug, explains: “These are highly professional systems that can react immediately and effectively to dangerous situations or incidents.”
Frey points out that in order to get people out of a burning building safely and quickly, the usual green signs along hallways indicating escape routes are not sufficient. In public buildings such as hospitals and hotels, he says, most people aren’t familiar with their surroundings. “If you’re in a panic, the next emergency exit isn’t that easy to find.”
Studies also show that many people fail to react appropriately to conventional warning signals such as honking or sirens. They often think it’s just a fire drill or a false alarm — or else they don’t know what to do. This is where information technology can help. For instance, office workers could receive automatic warnings and updates on their personal computer screens. At the same time, large electronic screens in the hallways and smartphones would display arrows showing people how to get out of a building. In addition, sensors in ceilings and floors would be able to measure the stream of people.
Based on this information, an intelligent building software system would be able to recognize early on when a particular escape route is in danger of becoming overcrowded. It would then respond by directing people to the fastest and best alternative route out of a building and into the open. Visual systems would also be complemented by voice alarms and mass text messages. “Clear, precise announcements would additionally enable a rapid and orderly evacuation and prevent panic from spreading,” explains Markus Niederberger, who is in charge of Business Operations for the intelligent response systems.
Tracking Fires on Phones.
What’s more, such systems will be able to improve building management and support rescue workers. “The system analyzes data from a building, recommends immediate measures to defuse a situation, generates dynamic, up-to-date instructions, and helps rescue workers manage the evacuation and direct people to escape routes,” says Frey, describing the idea behind the software concept. In the future, he adds, when a fire breaks out, the building management system will immediately link up with the fire department’s computer system. Rescue teams and fire fighters would then receive a blueprint of the building on their smartphones. Such a plan would not only display the source of the fire, but also monitor how it is spreading. In addition, intelligent movement sensors would indicate where people are located in the building.
In cooperation with other companies and institutes, Siemens researchers are participating in the European research project ELASSTIC (Enhanced Large scale Architecture with Safety and Security Technologies and Special Capabilities), formerly known as DESSiRE (Designing safe, secure and resilient large building complexes). Within this project, Klein and his colleagues have been assigned the task of expanding crowd control technology so that it encompasses additional disaster scenarios. Subsequently, they are to integrate the entire simulation package into a building management system. Additions for earthquakes, storms, floods, and bomb attacks are under development. A demonstrator is scheduled for the fall of 2014.