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Developing Better Evacuation Plans Through Simulation Modeling

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Penn State University's football home opener on Sept. 6 provided little in-game drama last year — the Nittany Lions comfortably beat Akron, 21-3 — but plenty of pregame drama. The weather forecast called for potential lightning storms that day, creating a headache for athletic officials concerned about the safety of spectators both in the tailgate areas and Beaver Stadium. In preparation for the coming storm, Penn State shared with the public its evacuation plan, which included designated shelter areas and evacuation routes, to ensure everyone understood instructions in advance.

"Evacuation is a complicated subject because of the sheer volume of people in a stadium at one time," says Daniel DeLorenzi, director of security for MetLife Stadium, home to the NFL's New York Giants and New York Jets. "What makes it even more challenging is that the protective action you take — shelter-in-place, relocate or evacuate — can switch as the situation develops or is brought under control."

All venues and events have evacuation plans in place to address anything from weather emergencies to a terrorist act, but there are other challenges that outdated plans may not cover.

"When you talk about anticipating something like a drone, what do you do in the event a drone crashes into a crowd, which might lead to a stampede?" asks Jim Martin, managing partner with Venue Intelligence, a provider of mobile access tools for event and emergency planning, as well as simulation-based predictive modeling of crowd movement.

In his home state of Indiana, the Indianapolis 500 presents a particularly daunting challenge, with attendance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway surpassing 300,000. "It's tough deciding how to deploy resources, which is why actionable intelligence is so critical in helping these venue managers make better-informed decisions," Martin says.

Today, an increasing number of athletic security leaders are transitioning away from antiquated paper evacuation plans to simulation-modeling tools that help them create an adaptable evacuation plan for any situation, all accessible via mobile device.

Working with the Department of Homeland Security, MetLife Stadium has utilized simulation modeling since it opened in 2010. In the beginning, DeLorenzi received simulation models for the shelter-in-place, relocation and evacuation protective-action scenarios — scenarios that came in handy during a lightning storm delay that year that forced DeLorenzi to move the entire stadium population into the hallways for approximately one hour until the storm passed.

Says DeLorenzi, "That's a serious situation and not to be taken lightly. You don't want to find out in the middle of a lightning storm that you don't have enough room to fit everyone."

That's exactly what Menomonee Falls (Wis.) High School discovered, with the help of simulation modeling. When Ryan Anderson, athletics and activities director at the school, reviewed his existing evacuation plan, he noted that it needed some improvement. He reached out to InControl Simulation Solutions through its partner, the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) at the University of Southern Mississippi, to learn about its SportEvac product, a software system than enhances the athletic facility user's situational knowledge in terms of preparedness, response and assessment.

"We created a simulation model for Menomonee Falls' football stadium, gym and soccer field," says Charles Lester, simulation application consultant for InControl. "Some surprising developments grew from that — most notably, the weather shelter locations for football weren't adequate for sheltering everyone." Another surprising development from the simulation was the time it would take to evacuate people from the gym through its fire doors. As Lester notes, "Ryan thought it would be lower, so we had to work together to see where the problem was."

Based on the success of SportEvac, Menomonee Falls plans to utilize the simulation-modeling platform for its smaller athletic venues, such as the pool and tennis courts. Menomonee Falls is planning to utilize SportEvac district-wide at all its lower-level schools, as well.

Martin, for his part, admits he was surprised at the amount of stress athletic directors place on weather preparation. "The high school athletic directors I've spoken to have told me that weather evacuations are the biggest thing that keeps them awake at night," he says.

Simulation modeling is not a new technology, but its value may be a bit misunderstood in the sports security world. When Fred Jansma, chief technology officer at InControl, would discuss simulation with his European clients 10 years ago, they would give him a similar response. "People thought that it would just point out their mistakes, and I would reassure them that it's not a technique to attack them, it's a technique to assist them," he says.

Jansma also notes that the time needed to create a model has significantly improved over the years, as well. "When I started at InControl in 1996, it would take months to develop. Now, we're doing it in days," he says.

The beauty of simulation modeling is in its simplicity and adaptability, according to Martin. "From a stadium standpoint, you can simulate if you have a full house tonight versus only half due to bad weather, if half your crowd is intoxicated or filled with younger kids who move slower than adults, or if your press box is filled with VIPs that night," he says. "With a couple keystrokes, you can generate reports based on a variety of crowd dynamics."

DeLorenzi says that the simulation model showed his team exactly how long it would take for a full stadium of spectators to exit simultaneously, something that would have been confused or misconstrued otherwise. "With the computer-simulated model, our staff now understands where it's going to be most crowded, and how long it will take for people to leave the building."

This knowledge was especially important when the Super Bowl was held at MetLife Stadium last year. "You augment your staffing with a lot of extra security and guest services, but our people were at the center of the evacuation plan for the Super Bowl because of their familiarity with the building," he says. "You can't bring in 2,000 extra staff members and expect them to understand the building in a couple days."

This is also an issue for endurance events such as marathons that likewise utilize thousands of volunteers. "When you think about the extraordinary amount of staff, volunteers and public safety for a marathon or an event like the Indy 500, getting all of these people on the same page is difficult, especially when there are big operational changes leading up to, or during, an event," says Martin, noting that the Indianapolis 500 had to adjust its entrance/exit operating procedures in 2013, when the race came a mere six weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings. Specifically, bag checks created two-hour delays in entrance lines.

"It's not for a lack of getting that information out, it was an issue of not having a way to simulate what they were proposing," Martin says. "With simulation modeling, you can say it'll take a certain amount of time per person to do a gate check, and a report will tell you average wait time per person. You no longer have to just think you have a good written plan and hope it works."

RELATED: Athletic Facility Evacuation and Emergency Planning Tips

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Gameday Security with the title, "The Calm During the Storm." Dennis Van Milligen (dennis@athleticbusiness, @AB_Dennis) is editor in chief of Gameday Security.

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