Evacuation program gets federal funding

Shashi Shekhar is trying to make his program available to large companies.

Kelly Gulbrandson

A University professor who developed an emergency evacuation program recently received a national grant to further his research.

Shashi Shekhar, a computer science and engineering professor, developed a program to evacuate large crowds of people in the most efficient time.

The National Science Foundation announced Shekhar as the recipient of a grant to further his research earlier this month.

The idea for the project, known as Capacity Constrained Route Planner, came as a response to Sept. 11. Shekhar said he wondered how evacuation planning would change after the terrorist attacks.

His previous research on spatial mining, the use of space around us, and traffic models facilitated his evacuation research.

“With an evacuation of 100,000 people, it would take two to six hours,” Shekhar said, of a scenario he likened to the State Fair.

When Shekhar plans the evacuation of an area, he finds out how many people need to be evacuated, what type of emergency has occurred and how far away people need to get.

In 2005, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, in a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, wanted all U.S. metropolitan areas to be evacuation-ready. The partnership called on Shekhar.

The project he completed for the partnered agencies improved evacuation time by 30 percent, Shekhar said.

While researching and working on the project, he said he realized people will be evacuated faster if they walk for the first mile.

“Walking makes the evacuation time faster as the population increases,” he said.

Betsy George, research assistant and graduate student in computer science and engineering, has been working with Shekhar on evacuation planning for three years.

“This is a pertinent problem in real-life situations today,” she said. “Every road has its capacity and when the road reaches it, nothing moves.”

The project, which was completed in 2005 but is still making advances, has a lot of dimensions to it and is a complex problem, George said.

Henry Liu, an assistant professor in civil engineering, works with traffic management and has worked with Shekhar on the traffic-flow problems relating to evacuation.

Liu said it would take a few hours to evacuate the Twin Cities. Previous planning with traffic management was inefficient, which led to Liu working with Shekhar.

Shekhar recently evaluated the best evacuation procedures for the State Fair grounds, the Monticello power plant and colleges including the University.

Planning for the evacuation of the Twin Cities is difficult because it is hard to pinpoint the exact number of people involved in the evacuation, Shekhar said. The number of people changes according to the time of day.

When the number of people is off, the timing is affected, so it is not an exact science. This means recommended evacuation routes could take longer than anticipated and people might not follow the routes given to them, Liu said.

“People want to leave as soon as possible; they do not care how,” he said.

Although the initial project was completed in 2005, Shekhar is currently working on making his project more accessible and easy to use for large companies, such as banks and people in the private sector.

In addition to the NSF grant, Shekhar has applied for grants from other state agencies. He said he recently received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

A University advisory committee will meet next week to discuss the future of the program, Shekhar said.

“They will look at the big picture and decide where to go from there,” he said.