Disaster game to the rescue

A computer program in the works for training would allow L.A. fire officials to simulate responses with more efficiency.

By Nick Green
Daily Breeze

Today, the logistics of holding a simulated large-scale disaster drill involving a major terrorist strike or earthquake in the Los Angeles metropolitan area are unwieldy and primitive.


The Los Angeles Fire Department, for instance, convenes two groups of senior officials in adjacent rooms.


One group creates a fictional disaster scenario, while the other responds to it.


Incident commanders visualize the unfolding disaster, aided by simple flip charts or photographs, and deploy resources accordingly -- fire engines manned by scores or perhaps hundreds of firefighters, for instance -- to react to events.


The exercise stretches personnel as other firefighters cover for those involved in the drill and ties up equipment for hours.


"It's so costly to have large exercises," said Capt. Ron Roemer, a San Pedro resident who is one of three Los Angeles Fire Department officials in charge of the regional training unit.


At the same time, the limitations associated with simulations planned on a piece of paper can undermine a drill's authenticity.


But what if you could design what is essentially a sophisticated video game as a training device instead?


Using artificial intelligence, a computer program acting on its own could dictate the elements of the disaster scenario based upon set parameters within a 3-D environment. No need for the clumsy make-believe scenario of today.


What artificial intelligence experts dub "autonomous software agents" -- programs embedded within the overall simulation -- would dictate how it plays out.


For instance, software dictates how fire propagates and which buildings "burn" based on such variables as wind speed, the type of structural materials and street widths.


Able to see a mock city in its entirety on a large video screen, incident commanders could react instantaneously, deciding where simulated firefighters and paramedics are needed to respond to problems.


The software could add things that would occur in real life but are usually not an element of drills now, such as panicked crowds and congested traffic that need to be controlled.


And the simulation could be speeded up or slowed down as needed. No need for waiting around while that real firefighter climbs 20 flights of stairs to tell incident commanders whether a "fire" had reached an upper floor yet.


"There are fewer (real life) consequences to deal with," Roemer said. "You're not burning fuel, you're not wearing out equipment. It's a lot more controlled. You can see if you're heading toward a mistake much more quickly."


It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the day of creating realistic simulated macro-disasters on a citywide scale is drawing near.


Rancho Palos Verdes resident Milind Tambe, an associate professor in the USC Department of Computer Science, is leading a computer-modeling effort to create just such a program in conjunction with the Los Angeles Fire Department.


Funding comes from USC-based CREATE -- the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events -- the first university center in the nation backed by money from the Department of Homeland Security.


The idea behind CREATE is to develop tools emergency responders can use to protect lives and property in the aftermath of a disaster such as a major terrorist strike.


The simulation Tambe is creating along with doctoral student Nathan Schurr is an outgrowth of a competition for computer science geeks dubbed RoboCup.


In RoboCup Rescue, teams compete to save the most people they can in a simulated disaster scenario (a USC team finished third in the 2001 competition held in Seattle).


Obviously, emergency re- sponders have similar goals.


"What we're focusing on is the resource allocation problem: What personnel should be assigned to what kind of task?" Schurr said.


Tambe and Schurr's program, based upon the city of Kobe, Japan, which was devastated by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in 1995, has 400 buildings and as many as 20 fire engines, each a different software agent.


"Instead of people playing these roles, we have (software) agents playing these roles," Tambe said.


This is esoteric stuff dreamed up by academicians who write papers with titles like "An asynchronous complete method for distributed constraint optimization."


Nevertheless, reality draws closer with each evolution of the simulation.


By summer, Tambe hopes to replace the simulated city of Kobe with Los Angeles, using geographic information systems data provided by city officials.


USC gaming students -- yes, it's possible to get a degree in video game development -- are helping to make the simulation even more realistic.


The Los Angeles Fire Department, which is designing a simulation center officials hope will open this summer, plans to base training exercises for incident commanders on Tambe's work.


"This really tests your decision-making," Roemer said, after seeing the latest updated simulation Tambe and Schurr presented. "It puts a little more stress on you."


Originally published on March 6, 2006