Innovation & Simulation

Nov 19, 2015

For instance, during some winter test flights near Quebec City, Dr. George Leblanc and his team discovered a new and unexpected ability to get important data from recently disturbed snow. 

“Quite honestly, this was one of those things that just fell into our laps,” he told FrontLine. After imaging human footsteps in snow during one test flight, they scanned the same place the next day, after a snowfall. “When we analyzed the data, we found that some tracks in the snow were really prominent. They were disturbed tracks, but there were many other disturbed tracks as well.” In fact, the difference between the tracks was time. The more prominent ones had been laid down later than the originals. “When we went back to the people who were laying out the targets they said ‘oh yes those were the tracks we laid last night’.” As Dr. Leblanc said, “It was one of those things that doesn’t happen very often in science. It was a big, red bull's-eye.”

The benefit for Search And Rescue operations during the Canadian winter is clear. To focus on the most recent path could allow searchers to eliminate false leads. Dr. Leblanc is careful to explain that the capability is still in the very early stages of development. “It shows promise but it isn’t ready for prime time. It still has to be put into an operational context,” he says. “We still need to do a lot of research on it, but what we have done so far is a nice case because we basically had a snowfall in between, so it was nice and new, and it actually worked out really, really well.” 

It is one thing for a team of scientists to demonstrate a capability but it could be a long time before it is available to first responders. The technology supporting the application is available, and it could even be scaled down to a usable size for real world applications but, not surprisingly, cost is an obstacle. “The technology is there for these smaller, lighter, faster things,” Dr. Leblanc says, “they’re just expensive.”

Parallel developments of the technology for commercial applications could eventually deliver the capability to the first responder community. “That being said, there is no reason why there can’t be private entrepreneurs who develop similar technologies that can be called in,” he suggests. “It’s a model that sometimes works, and for the first responder community, you don’t have to invest in this technology, you just call it in, really. It is expensive technology.” 

Perfecting the capability will require time, money and leadership. “It is one of those things that has to find a home,” he says. “It has proven to be quite difficult, actually, to find a home where we can properly package it up and do a little more research.” So, has Leblanc been talking to producers from CSI: Nunavut? “No, not yet,” he laughs. 

While Leblanc’s research focuses on the outdoors, his colleague Dr. Steven Gwynne looks at human behaviour inside buildings and other enclosed spaces – the factors that influence evacuee and responder performance. He examines people movement, particularly evacuation and pedestrian dynamics. “basically it’s about how people move in and around structures, given that they have a location to get to and tasks to perform.” 

During their careers, most first responders will encounter situations where groups or individuals are confronted with situations in which they need to escape. Understanding such behaviour could allow emergency personnel to make better decisions about evacuation. “This kind of research leads to safer environments,” he says. 

For example, law enforcement was one of the first groups to recognize the value of simulated weapons training such as offered by Meggitt Training Systems of Quebec, where whey can train for everything from basic marksmanship to use-of-force scenarios in a safe environment. 

“We look at it under different scenarios. It could be under a safety scenario, like an emergency evacuation. How long did it take someone to get from a position in the building to a place of safety? Or it could be part of a normal operation, so how long did it take people to get around a shopping mall, given that they wanted to visit locations? Or it could be a security procedure. How long did it take people to get through a checkpoint or how long do we expect the queues to be, given that new procedures are always being put in place.”

A large part of Dr. Gwynne’s work involves using simulation tools to quantify human performance, to model how long it would take someone to get to a place of safety or how long it takes to get through a new security checkpoint. “The value of those numbers or those times or those insights is certainly apparent to emergency responders, but it also has value for people like designers and engineers,” he said. “So, for instance, if you are designing an airport how could you improve that design, given the time it takes to evacuate to a place of safety or given the time it takes to get through the airport during a time of normal operations or indeed through security.” A safety manager in a facility that is looking to invest in a new notification system, or develop a new procedure, would look to simulation tools to provide evidence to support a business case. “If you can quantify performance, it doesn’t answer the question for you, but it does provide evidence that support answers to the question.” 

NRC scientists are using the simulation tools to examine both the procedures that are identified, the safety operations and security, and the interaction between them. “This is where these tools become particularly useful,” Dr. Gwynne explains. “At an airport, you have obvious security procedures in place and there are obvious safety measures in place. There are procedures to evacuate or to get people to safety, should an incident occur. But it is also important to see how these things interact, how the changes in one procedure might influence another.” For instance, what works well during normal operations might break down in a heightened state of security, or changes in the structure may mean the emergency evacuation procedure should also be updated. 

“These tools don’t provide the answer, but they allow you to investigate questions, and they produce evidence that can then be either handed off or used as part of an analysis that helps uncover an answer.”

Simulation tools allow a range of decision makers to look at a range of different scenarios that might not be possible to study using the standard tests that involve testing with real people in different environments. “Sometimes you can’t put people in the situations that are of interest because of ethical concerns or because the facility is in constant use, like an airport. Some of these tools do allow you to experiment and come up with evidence for a particular position given that the tool itself is credible and produces reasonable results based on testing and validation.” 

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
Photos courtesy of the National Research Council of Canada

© FrontLine Security 2015