Prevailing wisdom has it that crowds can be unpredictable even under the best of circumstances. Toss in a fire, a terrorist attack or some other kind of emotionally fraught incident (such as a hotly contested soccer match) and crowds can mutate into a panicked, unruly mob that defies any law enforcement effort to regain order and get them out of harm's way. This mass of humanity on-the-hoof can turn the most carefully constructed crowd control or evacuation plan into a ham-handed attempt that fails miserably, even dangerously.
The human element, factoring in how a mass of people will likely react under differing emergency scenarios, is an essential part of devising effective crowd management and evacuation strategies. Yet this element has gone missing from most emergency management preplanning software programs. However, Rontal Applications Ltd. has designed an innovative software platform that takes this into account. Dubbed SimGuard, the incident management system considers the varied and conditional human behavior in emergencies through a crowd-behavior prediction module. The company recently released an extension to the module that offers additional enhancements to SimGuard's Crowd-behavior Scenarios Database.
Rontal Applications is headquartered in Lod, Israel, although it has recently opened a U.S. location in Virginia. The company was founded approximately four years ago by experienced aviators, who drew their inspiration for SimGuard from changes that took place in the cockpit, says co-founder and CEO Roni Zehavi.
"If you look at the evolution of the cockpit, in 1915 there were just three to five gauges," Zehavi says. "It was very easy to monitor. But by the 1970s, the number of gauges had grown to 100 to 150. It became impossible to monitor all of them. At some point, people started asking why they had to monitor every single piece of information. Why not just look at the most important?
"Now, if you go into modern cockpits, you will see they have just three screens that monitor situation awareness," he continues. "We do the same thing with this system; we analyze the data and with one screen we allow the operator to fully monitor a situation, what is happening, what are the consequences, and what he needs to do."
SimGuard is designed to allow end-users, those tasked with managing large-scale evacuations, to more effectively pre-plan evacuation strategies and test their efficacy. The platform can also conduct realistic training on these scenarios as well. The new extension improves the system's ability to predict behavior through the enhanced manipulation of an animated virtual crowd, which enables operators to better examine how crowds, differing in composition, may react to various emergency situations.
The software enables end-users to identify escape routes and anticipate how the routes might be affected by different events, such as a bomb blast versus fire or smoke, etc. The system stores the plans and in the case of an actual event, calls them up and guides the operator's response. Because the system monitors events as they happen, via real-time sensors, end-users can also react immediately to changes — such as blocked exits, bottlenecks or other unexpected obstacles — that could hinder a timely evacuation.
Let's use an example of a correctional facility to explain how real-time sensing works.
SimGuard would take all the existing sensor deployments from the jail, such as cameras, inputting their positions exactly as they exist in the facility into the program. Also included would be location of other sensors such as gates, doors and fire detectors. Using blueprints and digital photos, the company would combine and load structural and sensory information into the software, building a three-dimensional (3D) model of the facility, creating a virtual site of the real thing that includes multi-layered display of pipes, electricity and phone cables, escape routes, etc., Zehavi explains.