Sports venues are supposed to be prepared for emergencies — such as a bombing or a lone shooter — that could require a quick evacuation of more than 70,000 fans.
But venue managers “are not training their staffers as well as we would like,” says Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. “They’re not doing training exercises,” he says, noting that it’s costly to conduct live drills for events of this magnitude.
Marciani is one of the leading researchers in a project that seeks to fill these training deficiencies. The Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate partnered with the University of Southern Mississippi and several other organizations to create a computer program called SportEvac that uses human avatars to simulate the behaviors of panicking crowds in sports stadiums.
“Our goal was to try to find ways to reach security planners and give them a tool suite they can use for practicing these scenarios,” says Marciani.
The program can be customized to fit the specifications of individual stadiums. It uses algorithms to predict the behaviors of large groups, and it factors in variables such as irrational, drunken fans and wheelchair-bound spectators.
Managers can determine how long an evacuation would take, how many people would crowd each exit and where signs could be placed to improve efficiency.
The underlying concepts can be applied to evacuation simulations for shopping malls,
concert halls and other crowded events, Marciani says.
“This is just the beginning of the capabilities,” he adds. “I hope that this modeling is carried over to other areas of critical infrastructure as a gift from the sports world.”
In March, developers began testing the software by applying its models to actual stadiums. They’re also looking into options for commercializing the software, which they hope to get into the hands of as many stadium managers as possible.
DHS spent $1.3 million on the project.