Researchers developing disaster-planning tool that will work like a video game

By The Canadian Press
March 20, 2017 - 11:00am

HALIFAX — A pair of researchers in Halifax are working on an elaborate, computerized disaster-planning simulator that will one day function like a multiplayer video game — the first version of which has already plotted what could happen if the port city is inundated by a catastrophic flood.

Professor Ahsan Habib at Dalhousie University says a test of an early model has suggested it would take 15 hours to evacuate the densely populated Halifax peninsula if the ocean suddenly rose between 3.9 and 7.9 metres.

"We have only five exit points ... (making) our transportation network very vulnerable in a mass evacuation," Habib said in an interview Monday from the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory, a lab that brings together civil engineers and urban planners.

"This is just a bare-bones model, and now we'll start playing with it."

Habib says the peninsula's narrow roads and lack of highways would make an evacuation particularly difficult.

"The ultimate goal is come up with some sort of a game at the end, making it much more user friendly so that emergency managers can get training and learn lessons," Habib says.

Dalhousie professor Kevin Quigley says the final version of the program will operate much like a so-called massive multiplayer online role-playing game — but that will take another two years to develop.

"As more young people join emergency management offices, this is the kind of tool that they'll be comfortable using," said Quigley, an expert on risk at the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance.

"People are highly optimistic on video games. They believe they can solve problems: they can slay the dragon, capture the castle and save everybody. We need to get that kind of optimistic attitude in solving our public policy problems."

Barry Manuel, emergency management co-ordinator for the Halifax region, says he's eager to try a game-type simulation.

"It sounds exciting," he said "Evacuations are one of the hardest things to simulate ... We know where the choke-points are, but we don't know what the variables are ... I don't want to wait to do it for real. I want to know now."

The latest mathematical models include municipal data from automated traffic lights and detailed travel logs from 1,200 people living and working on the peninsula.

However, some key variables have yet to be added.

The current scenario looks only at how people would escape in their own cars. The use of municipal and school buses hasn't been factored in, and neither has the potential for widespread panic.

"Our starting point is assuming rational behaviour," Quigley says. "But if you look at what happens typically, there's unpredictable stuff that happens ... These things have to be thrown into the mix, as well as people's emotional reactions."

As a result, the 15-hour evacuation estimate is probably overly optimistic, he says.

Eventually, the Halifax scenario could be adapted to create simulations valuable to planners in other parts of the country, Quigley says, citing the possibility of modelling floods in Alberta or a big earthquake in Vancouver.

"The state of evacuation readiness across the country is a bit of a hodgepodge," Quigley says. "Sometimes the plans are up to date. Sometimes they're not."


Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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