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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI engineer awarded $470,000 NSF grant to study pedestrian evacuation from buildings

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

Project to use T.F. Green Airport as modelKINGSTON, R.I. -- March 24, 2004 -- The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and The Station nightclub fire have drawn new attention to the challenges of evacuating people from public buildings.

Thanks to a $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Rhode Island researcher will shed new light on the many issues involved in evacuating people quickly and safely from public structures.

"Research into pedestrian flows in and around buildings has been neglected, and while there are a few models out there currently in use, our research will for the first time factor human behavior into the model," said Natacha Thomas, assistant professor of civil engineering.

Using Rhode Island's T.F. Green Airport as an example, Thomas and colleagues from URI and the University of Delaware Disaster Center will simulate the movement of pedestrians in an emergency. They will also simulate changes in the physical structure, as well as various management policies and communications, that may affect the speed of evacuation.

"We’ll simulate different hazards, and then we should be able to predict how, for instance, adding another door or changing a warning message, would aid people in getting out," Thomas said.

The major challenge of the study will be in simulating human behaviors and decision-making processes. Thomas said that at the Station fire, most people tried to leave by the same door they came in, which is a typical human response, rather than using other available doors.

"Social bonds play a major role, too," she said. "When you're in a group, like a family, that affects how quickly you evacuate. Accounting for everyone in your group, the timing of decisions, those things slow down the evacuation process for groups, so they must be incorporated into the model."

Another challenge that Thomas and her colleagues will face is in calibrating the model to ensure its accuracy.

"We don't have any film of actual evacuations in progress. If we did we could watch the decision-making process as it happens, or we could see who arises as a leader, how particular exits are neglected, how management advice is heeded, and see the speed that things happen," the URI researcher said.

The results of the project can be used as a useful blueprint for crisis evacuation planning by local, state and federal officials and private organizations. Project results may also facilitate inclusion of evacuation concerns into the design of public structures and urban planning.

A native of Haiti who earned degrees from Universite d'Etat d'Haiti, the University of Maryland and the University of Illinois, Thomas has been studying pedestrian and bicyclist issues for several years. After completing this three-year pedestrian evacuation research project, she intends to study evacuation models for entire cities.

Working with Thomas on the project are Manbir Sodhi, URI professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering; Joan Peckham, URI professor of computer science and statistics; Charles Collyer, URI professor of psychology; Jean-Yves Herve, URI assistant professor of computer science and statistics; and Benigno Aquirre, professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware and senior faculty associate at Delaware's Disaster Research Center.

For Further Information: Natacha Thomas 401-874-9353