April 01, 2022
By Jonah Grinkewitz
Mike Robinson knows how to make an exit.
Well, he knows how long it takes to make an exit.
Robinson, an associate research professor at Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), works on evacuation models for emergencies that force community evacuations, including natural disasters and storm events. man-made such as terrorist attacks.
“I wouldn’t say I’m still looking for an exit, but I’m like, ‘Could people get out of here?'” he said.
ODU is a leader in disaster response.
When the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, devastated communities in 2018, Robinson was part of a team of evacuation experts hired by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to assess wildfire evacuation plans in the state. A faulty power line belonging to PG&E is believed to have caused the blaze that nearly destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow and killed 85 people.
“When we got there, we were looking at those communities and a lot of them didn’t have what we would think were acceptable evacuation plans,” Robinson said. “Part of this is because forest fire modeling is very complex, so evacuation studies have not been given prominence. Smaller communities have been particularly affected due to the cost of simulations.”
So Robinson and the VMASC modeling team set out to create a tool for these vulnerable communities.
The FLEET (Fast Local Emergency Evacuation Times) model uses accurate census data and smaller road networks — like those in these cities — to estimate how long it will take to evacuate a given area.
On a page that looks a bit like Google Maps, users select the area they want to leave, and within minutes FLEET provides an evacuation time estimate.
“FLEET has filled a void, and I’m happy to say people are using it,” Robinson said.
Released in August 2021, the program has been used by communities in 24 states.
FLEET builds on the Real-Time Evacuation Planning Model (RtePM) that VMASC developed with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in 2012.
In November 2021, Robinson was again contacted for his knowledge of escape modeling by a group called Westside Watch in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They asked him to run the FLEET model for several areas of the city in hopes of motivating the Colorado Springs City Council to do a broader evacuation study.
“Mike’s expertise in evacuation modeling has been instrumental in educating our community and leaders on why this process is so necessary, especially in the new normal of terrible fires we are experiencing across the country,” said Westside Watch board member Dana Duggan. “We may not be able to stop the fires, but we can certainly use advanced tools like FLEET to make sure people can get out and improve our entry and exit before those fires.”
Shortly after Robinson and the team ran for city council, the Marshall Fire destroyed hundreds of homes near Boulder, Colorado. In late March, another wildfire near Boulder forced 19,000 people to evacuate their homes.
“People say, ‘This won’t happen to me,’ and they don’t prepare for emergencies,” Robinson said. “If there’s one positive thing to take from people losing their homes in such a terrible way, maybe it’s that others will wake up and say, ‘We have to plan for this’.”
Although Robinson and other VMASC researchers do not make these decisions, they are dedicated to developing tools that communities and leaders can use to plan for emergencies.
“We just want people to be safe,” he said.
VMASC is a multidisciplinary applied research and business research center of Old Dominion University, located in the Tri-Cities Center in Suffolk. Comprised of more than two dozen research faculty and project scientists, they provide modeling and simulation, analytical research, and technology support to partners across a variety of industry, government, and community sectors: including healthcare health, cybersecurity, strategic defense, transport and infrastructure, usability and instructional design.
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