Rutgers Professors Create Software to Assist in Facility Evacuation

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Two Rutgers University professors are developing a computer program to help large facilities develop procedures for evacuating people during a fire, bioterror attack or natural disaster.

The software could be customized to fit any building plan. Once it detects anthrax or a fire, for example, it would provide security officials with specific steps to take, such as blocking off access to a contaminated area of a building.

"It gives them directions and guidance on how to respond to the incident," said Ali Maher, professor and chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department at Rutgers. Maher also serves as director to the federal and state-funded group called The Center for Advanced Infrastructure & Transportation.

The professors are testing their software now at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Their work also has caught the interest of New Jersey State Police and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Maher said.

"We're trying to develop a platform that every hospital in the nation could use, actually any place could use," said Mohsen Jafari, an industrial engineering professor at Rutgers and member of the center. "Several hospitals in the state are very interested."

Rutgers is working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and with a private firm to incorporate an anthrax detection technology in the program.

The lab, which primarily works for NASA on sending rovers to Mars, invented an anthrax "smoke" detector in 2002. Universal Detection Technology of Beverly Hills, Calif., purchased the licensing for the detectors.

"The most important thing you want to know is if you've been exposed," said Adrian Ponce, senior scientist with the lab. "The only people who died (in the 2001 anthrax attacks) were the ones who didn't know they've been exposed."

Rutgers representatives will meet with lab and Universal Detection Technology officials Thursday in California. They aim to have their software available within nine months.

Though many large-scale public facilities and high-rise buildings have evacuation plans, very few have tested them, the professors said.

"New Jersey is the primary transit hub of the Northeast. You have airports, ports, trains and the turnpike," Maher said. "You're basically the main transit corridor between Boston and Florida."

Maher said he envisions the program being used as a network in the future so several buildings on a city block could use it to evacuate in a crisis.

The Garden State's proximity to New York and its history of anthrax contamination at the Hamilton post office make it one of the nation's best test markets, said Amir Ettehadieh, director of research and development for Universal Detection Technology.