Examining evacuee response to emergency communications with agent-based simulations

C. Natalie van der Wal, Daniel Formolo, Mark A. Robinson, Steven Gwynne

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To improve communication during emergencies, this research introduces an agent-based modeling (ABM) method to test the effect of psychological emergency communication strategies on evacuation performance. We follow a generative social science approach in which agent-based simulations allow for testing different candidate solutions. Unlike traditional methods, such as laboratory experiments and field observations, ABM simulation allows high-risk and infrequent scenarios to be empirically examined before applying the lessons in the real world. This is essential, as emergency communication with diverse crowds can be challenging due to language barriers, con-flicting social identities, different cultural mindsets, and crowd demographics. Improving emergency communication could therefore improve evacuations, reduce injuries, and ultimately save lives. We demonstrate this ABM method by determining the effectiveness of three communication strategies for different crowd compositions in transport terminals: (1) dynamic emergency exit floor lighting directing people to exits, (2) staff guiding people to exits with verbal and physical instructions, and (3) public announcements in English. The simulation results indicated that dynamic emergency exit floor lighting and staff guiding people to exits were only beneficial for high-density crowds and those unfamiliar with the environment. Furthermore, English public announcements actually slowed the evacuation for mainly English-speaking crowds, due to simultaneous egress causing congestion at exits, but improved evacuation speed in multicultural, multilingual crowds. Based on these results, we make recommendations about which communication strategies to apply in the real world to demonstrate the utility of this ABM simulation approach for risk assessment practice.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4623
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Agent-based model
  • Crowd management
  • Crowd simulation
  • Emergency communication


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