Virginia Tech researcher seeks to improve emergency hospital, community evacuations

April 22, 2011

When a hurricane or another major threat requires an emergency evacuation of a hospital, or an entire coastal community, the logistics can be a nightmare. In the first, hospital personnel must balance the risks involved in moving potentially hundreds of patients to safety while considering their individual medical needs, against the risk posed by the threat. In the second, regional or city officials may be tasked with evacuating hundreds of thousands of people in only a few days or hours, without creating transportation gridlock or leaving people stranded.

These efforts are fraught with dangers, missed cues, and the likelihood of traffic congestion and other problems that can halt or slow an evacuation. Douglas Bish (, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering's Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (, hopes to alleviate some of uncertainties.

He has won a 5-year, $400,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to create mathematical-based computer models that eventually will help emergency managers better plan, train and carry out these logistical complex tasks. A CAREER award is one of the most prestigious awards given to creative junior faculty likely considered to become academic leaders of the future.

"Hospital evacuations require decisions that are both medical and logistical in nature, while regional evacuations must consider social issues," Bish wrote in his grant proposal abstract. "To be successful, both evacuation problems require the integration of multiple processes and the coordination of a large number of resources in an efficient manner. While these problems are distinct, they can both be modeled using novel network formulations that are combinatorial in nature and involve high levels of uncertainty. Furthermore, solutions to both problems require robust, implementable strategies that consider risk. An operations research-based methodology will be used to study these evacuation problems."

Because of the complexities involved in evacuations, emergency managers train and prepare for such events, but full scale drills are nearly impossible because of the numbers of people involved, in addition to time, resources, money and risk. Therefore, computer modeling is an alternative. One can't just wait for an emergency - a hurricane on the coast or a fire in the hospital - and hope for the best in evacuating residents and patients, respectively, Bish said.

"We need to move people efficiently and safely during an emergency," Bish said, adding that logistical problems could be extremely complex and require planning. In the event of hospital evacuations, the timing of the emergency - fire, hurricane, earthquake aftermath - must be considered, but as well as the number of patients being moved, and care requirements. Patients who require constant life support or other 24/7 care will have greater needs - and take more time to move - than patients who have had minor surgeries or injuries.

"As coastal populations grow, especially on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, more sophisticated evacuation strategies will be required in response to seasonal hurricane evacuations, among other threats," Bish wrote in his abstract.

In the event of regional evacuations one must consider all transportation modes, change-over of Interstate lanes, and in what order - if any - different communities will be evacuated. For instance, evacuating residents closest to the coast during a hurricane likely will take precedence over those residents several miles inland.

Bish will study methods to organize those evacuating by automobile using detailed evacuation plans, while also developing plans for those without access to automobiles. These must consider the level of communication efforts - be it TV, Internet, cell phone, or radio required to disseminate the plans

Bish's research will have him talking to various hospital personnel, various levels of government, and emergency managers. The CAREER grant builds on work he previously performed under a Resource Allocation Program grant from Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Clinic for studying hospital evacuations and an earlier National Science Foundation grant regarding regional evacuations.
He earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from California Polytechnic State University; two master's degrees, one in biomedical engineering and another in industrial engineering, from Northwestern University; and a doctoral degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech

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