Education & IT: Taming a towering inferno with technology

Fire-fighting has taken a giant leap forward thanks to software developed at Greenwich University.
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Fire is hugely destructive. In Britain alone, it accounts for more than pounds 1bn worth of property damage and the loss of 800 lives every year, while the trauma of a major disaster, such as the fire at King's Cross, can linger with survivors and rescuers for a lifetime.

Faced with figures like these, Greenwich University's Fire Safety Engineering Group (FSEG), Europe's largest computer modelling team devoted to fire safety research, has developed a system that could ensure that a fire on the scale of King's Cross never occurs again. The group began in 1985 with a project funded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to examine the Manchester aircraft fire, resulting in sophisticated computer software to model the behaviour and progress of fire in almost any situation. But five years on it struck Ed Galea, FSEG director and CAA professor of mathematical modelling at Greenwich, that something was missing.

"I sat down and thought about why we were doing all this fire modelling, and the reason was the protection and preservation of life. But this didn't address life, just how the fire developed. We were missing half the equation - how people actually respond."

So Galea and his team constructed a computer model to predict how people behave in an evacuation. They marketed AirExodus, a software application now used by aircraft manufacturers worldwide, including Airbus in designing its 1,000-seater double-decker super jumbo.

AirExodus is based on five core modelling components - movement, occupant, toxicity, hazard and behaviour. Human behaviour is the most difficult aspect of the evacuation process to simulate. AirExodus tackles it by determining 20-odd characteristics, such as age, gender and disability.

To obtain reliable predictions, FSEG examined the behaviour of thousands of people during dozens of videotaped aircraft evacuations. "The elderly, for instance, react differently to younger people, women differently to men, in things like how long they hesitate, whether they jump or sit on the chute slide and so on," explains Galea.

The software has closely predicted the actual results of the 90-second evacuation test, a final test all aircraft undergo before entering service, in which a full plane has to be evacuated in darkness through half the available exits in less than 90 seconds. This is fraught with difficulties, says Galea. "First and foremost it is very dangerous. Around 6 per cent of participants are injured." One woman was actually left quadraplegic.

The test is not particularly informative, and, at around $2m (pounds 1.3m), expensive. "Because you only ever do one, it's not really representative of the aircraft's capabilities. With our evacuation model you can run this hundreds of times without injuring anyone for a very small cost and get a more realistic distribution of evacuation times."

After aircraft, FSEG turned its attention to buildings and created BuildingExodus. Its biggest project since launching BuildingExodus in October 1996 is the Millennium Dome, where design company Buro Happold is using the software to ensure the dome can be evacuated effectively. "With around 30,000 people you've got the kinds of problems present in any large structure - disorientation, whether people can find the emergency exits and so on," says Galea.

The software allows the dome designers to view a real-time, bird's-eye evaluation scenario, including moving crowds, how each individual reacts and how they are affected by hazards such as heat, smoke and toxic gases.

"Exodus can tell you how many people will die, who will die, what they died of and where you would find their bodies," says Galea.

What's good for public safety is also good for the university. The Exodus software, which costs from pounds 200 for an entry-level licence to pounds 5,000 for a more complex version, has enhanced Greenwich's reputation and its research capabilities - and sales of its software cover all the costs of further research.