An emergency is a sudden danger that requires immediate attention. It may be limited in scale, involving many injuries and deaths over multiple sites. Emergency planning focuses on the most effective ways possible to manage incidents that have large numbers of casualties. Normally it is limited to a series of plans relating to certain types of events, especially emergencies that are well-known and happen quite frequently. However, these may not cover operations for all potential incidents, particularly unprecedented incidents – low probability high impact events – which make emergency planning especially challenging. When you have only scarce resources available for planning, what do you do to plan for such rare events? Using computer-based tools that model emergency response can help make management and resilience planning more effective in the event of unusual, more serious disasters. Research from the REScUE project based at Durham University has produced an emergency response simulator that can assist fire, police, ambulance and other services in responding to mass casualty events. The agent-based modeller and simulator allows responders to prepare for unique emergencies. If adequate preparation is in place for a given emergency situation it can likely help prevent it from turning into a disaster. Both emergency and disaster situations require multiple levels of assistance and cooperation in order to prevent loss of life. This includes teams of specialists: fire fighters, police officers and medical units, working towards common goals such as reducing loss of human life and suffering. While there are plans in place for dealing with a range of different emergency situations, not all scenarios are the same, making planning far from straightforward. It is possible to create realistic training scenarios for emergency responders, but they are usually costly. Discussion and ‘table-top’ methods are used but may be too limited in scope, especially when preparing for unprecedented events. In comparison, computer modelling of major incidents is far more cost-effective, and allows testing of a wide range of incidents in a short period of time under various sets of conditions. The REScUE project worked closely with practitioners who actually provide emergency services in the field. ‘Looking at existing work I found that it was often lots of academics working without the involvement of practitioners’, said Dr Graham Coates, who is the principal investigator of REScUE. He found that in order for an emergency response simulator to work properly under different kinds of environmental conditions and scenarios, it needs to be in touch with the way practitioners act in an emergency. Using the emergency response simulator developed by the REScUE project in Durham, responders, such as fire fighters and medics, are represented as agents in the model, each having specific actions they are able to undertake according to the plan they must follow in a given incident involving casualties. ‘That was important because I always wanted to make sure this wasn’t another piece of software that was developed based on only an academic’s view of the world’, Coates said. The emergency services and academic worlds don’t often rub shoulders, but the REScUE project did so deliberately in order to develop a tool they could actually use to plan for emergencies. Researchers met with emergency planners including police, fire and ambulance units every six months over a three-year period so planners and responders had the opportunity to provide consultation over different aspects of the project. Both planners and responders provided constructive feedback that the researchers used to help improve the simulator. This feedback including recommending documentation that responders adhere to in the field, such as standard operational procedures, works well for programming ‘agents’ in a computer simulation. Fire fighters for example have a specific set of actions and activities for emergencies. Coates explained that agents in the models have ‘got a number of attributes and behaviours; and the actions they perform are based on practitioner literature’. So while the agents may not behave exactly like people, they follow the same operations as responders do in the field. This is especially useful for developing plans to get people who are in critical condition to hospital as quickly as possible. ‘Our work is actually related to response but it sits within the preparedness phase of emergency management. You can run what if scenarios and essentially build up a response for a new or unprecedented situation’, Coates said. In live planning simulations only one simulation can be run at a time, but the computerized emergency response simulator developed by Coates and colleagues can run many simulations simultaneously, and responders can use these to create effective emergency plans for varied situations. While other emergency planning simulators are confined to 2D grid designs, this simulator can accurately model any area of the UK in 3D, using Ordnance Survey data. ‘The ability to model any area or region of the UK using emergency planning simulations has never been done in the UK before our project’, said Coates. Usually emergency planners have a set of manuals for emergency response. In the event of an emergency they would use the response that most closely corresponded to the situation at hand. This approach can be limited in application: ‘What if, when you look through the set of emergency response manuals, there isn’t a plan that closely fits what’s happened? This is a way of trying out responses to inform the strategy you should employ if that situation did occur in reality’. David Hay, former Head of Regional Resilience for the North East who was an advisor on the REScUE project agrees: ‘ultimately a line of plans on a shelf is meaningless unless there is familiarity with the context and that only comes through discussion, consultation and the process of engaging. One of the cornerstones of planning is the process itself not the final plan’, he said. Modelling approaches that focus on individual actors or agents can assist emergency planners and managers in determining the amount of resources needed during an incident for example, and how to get the people in the most critical conditions to hospital in a timely manner. It can evaluate triage, for example, where casualties are identified by responders based on the level of injury they have, which determines how urgently they are in need of care. According to Coates and colleagues, academic literature supports the fact that emergency responders tend to ‘over triage’, meaning they assign people with lesser injuries as in need of urgent care, which may reduce the availability of resources such as ambulances for people whose injuries are far worse. When modelling these scenarios responders can actually account for this in the emergency response simulator to see how much this will affect available resources. The goal here is to minimise the suffering of the worst injured, allowing responders to decide in advance how to prioritise use of emergency services. Despite the sophistication of the ‘agents’, tools like the REScUE simulator are not currently used in emergency planning. However the hope is that this will change. After its completion, the tool developed at Durham was made available to the resilience planning team of Newcastle City Council and the Cleveland Emergency Planning Unit, which includes fire, police and ambulance services. Both project partners were interested in using the tool for preparing for unprecedented events, but both Coates and Hay stress that in most cases (whatever the cause of an emergency) what matters most is assessing the damage, especially the casualties involved, to minimise loss of life and suffering. The REScUE team, together with Hay, and with contributions from IHRR, also organised two multidisciplinary conferences at Durham on emergency planning that included emergency practitioners throughout the UK. ‘The best way of selling this solution is maintaining constant dialogue, building relationships and trust between researchers and practitioners’, said Hay. Furthermore, modelling for emergency planning could still improve over time and be adopted for wider use. ‘If you think about flight simulators, they were first met and used with caution, but now they are an accepted technology used to train pilots’, said Coates. Preparation is essential to emergency and disaster response. Simulators show that emergency planning simulators can play a major role in how responders prepare, enhanced by tailoring the software to the needs of responders. ‘The planning process is critically important, that sharing of information, and expertise, which is what I liked from the beginning about the REScUE project. This is about reality, about building in real data in actual physical environments that people can see around them’, said Hay.
About the lead researcher:
Dr Graham Coates is an engineer with a PhD in computational engineering design. He is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Durham University. He is currently leading a project on agent-based modelling for flood planning in urban environments.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 edition of the IHRR Newsletter.