Evacuation Plans Reevaluated for People with Disabilities

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Ed Yeates ReportingDisasters, like the collapse of New York's twin towers four years ago, have triggered a most unusual study at a Utah university. A research team is using computers to model new ways to evacuate buildings, especially for people with disabilities.

It's a tragic scene we've seen too many times, but it's this kind of disaster that prompted USU researchers to give architects and building owners some new models for evacuation. Not necessarily of the same magnitude, but the kind disabled people might face any day in a high rise.

Keith Christensen, USU Center for Persons with Disabilities: "The minute that fire alarm is pulled, they go from being an individual to being a victim."

Using the Salt Lake Airport, the Delta Center, the downtown Wells Fargo high rise, Olympus High School, the State Capitol Office Building, even the Federal Triangle in Washington DC, Keith Christensen and his colleagues allow artificial intelligence in a computer plot how people react and move during escape. Red squares represent 600 people making their way to exits in a USU building. Heavy red concentrations are bottlenecks, even in coded buildings with wide hallways.

Keith Christensen: "But then you start putting tables and chairs, and even drinking fountains in there and essentially it narrows the hallway."

Gordon Richins demonstrates. Since elevators close down in an emergency, he moves around obstacles from an office cubicle to a stairwell where he waits for help. In one real-life hotel experience, rescuers actually came to his room.

Gordon Richins, USU Center for Persons with Disabilities: "They picked me up out of bed, didn't even let me get dressed, and threw me over their shoulder. The guy carrying me, his knees were shaking by the time we got to the floor."

One of the technological changes that could come from this modeling is what is called a hardened elevator. It is an elevator that remains standing right up to the last minute, in fact, until the building collapses.

One smoke free, fire free, super strong, operational elevator, doors that open flush with the wall, placement of furnishings, novel evacuation plans, and more! That's what USU's Center for Persons with Disabilities hopes this research will eventually provide.

Christensen says evacuation research is still in its very early stages. Working models for users are another three to five years down the road.

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