Prevention and preservation: An intelligent evacuation system for libraries and museums

23 June 2022

Chintan Pandya

Bookshelves in a library.

While there has been much research on how to handle mass evacuations, new developments could ease the rapid exit of large groups of people from public spaces.

This article offers an overview of smart evacuation management systems – which make use of soft computing techniques – as a component of disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies, including crowd monitoring, disaster prediction, evacuation modelling, and guidelines for evacuation routes. This system is especially useful for large gathering places such as libraries and museums.

Preserving life and cultural heritage

Libraries and museums play an important cultural role, preserving our history and heritage – central aspects of our identity. Our world was shaped by the generations who came before us, and we need to protect their legacy by safeguarding libraries, and the books and records they hold, from disasters. For this reason, the UNESCO world heritage convention promotes the preservation and conservation of cultural heritage through strategic DRR planning.

When a disaster strikes, the need to get people out of harm's way takes precedence over everything else. The most important evacuation procedures are to relocate people to avoid dangers. Still, it is also possible to set up procedures to protect valuable property – especially those with unreplaceable cultural value.

Disasters around the world have repeatedly caused damage to cultural artefacts. When Italy’s Arno River flooded in 1966, a collection of centuries-old books was ruined, submerged in murky water. In 2015, Moscow's second-largest library went up in a blaze that caused its massive roof to collapse, consuming an area of one thousand square feet. In the same year, the earthquake in Nepal and fires at the Royal Palaces of Abomey in Benin caused devastating losses to the world’s cultural heritage.

A lack of awareness and preparation in evacuation procedures is a major cause of panic. According to a 2015 survey by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) roughly 60% of American people had not exercised disaster drills or preparation exercises at work, school, or home during that year.

In the event of a disaster, a crowded space such as a library or museum poses serious evacuation difficulties. In a crisis, individuals tend to lose their composure and make rash decisions. Staff too are often poorly trained and unprepared to deal with such circumstances.

Library fire risks

By nature of their design, libraries present increased risks from fire hazards.

The focus of library architecture is to promote airflow by opening up shelves on lower levels to improve access for uses, and by increasing ventilation beneath shelves to reduce the spread of mould.

When a fire breaks out in a library, the flames could readily spread from floor to floor, engulfing the whole building. The flammable nature of many of the tangible assets in a library – books, magazines, newspapers, artefacts and wooden furniture – contributes significantly to the building's high fire risk.

A disorderly, panicked evacuation poses greater danger for all the people involved, and reduces the possibility of protecting the library or museum’s valuable cultural artefacts.

A smarter way of evacuating

The internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) present new ways to improve upon all kinds of conventional systems, by transforming them using smart technologies.

This transformation can enhance efficiency, delivering precision and reducing requirements for human effort, resulting in a more secure environment. According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), the IoT economy is anticipated to reach $1 trillion by the end of 2025.

In the context of DRR, a combination of IoT, AI and data mining make it possible to track, anticipate and respond to material conditions from rain and snowfall to cyclones, from traffic congestion to high air pollution. These techniques can also be applied to smart evacuation systems.

A smart evacuation model

Different intelligent evacuation models have been developed (commercial and turnkey projects) and are applied in public spaces such as the University of Wolverhampton, the Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, or Harington Place in Woking, in the United Kingdom.

The theoretical aspects of Smart fire evacuation paradigm uses hybrid technology, employing both the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence.

The system uses micro-controller boards (such as Raspberry Pi or Arduino) fitted with a variety of sensors: fire sensors, gas sensors, heat sensors, motion detection sensors, and light sensors. These sensors are set up to work with the micro-controller through a specialised software programme interface. The sensors are installed throughout the building, and the software includes an evacuation floor direction plan. This whole system can use existing networks, employing Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, radio frequency, GPS, and local area networks.

How it works

  • With the help of the IoT, a smart evacuation system can predict, trigger an alarm, notify relevant personnel, manage crowds, make decisions, and direct people towards fire exits.
  • The devices keep track of visitors and staff in the library, using RFID ID badges and CCTV cameras and image processing.
  • In the event of a fire or other crisis, the AI system can decide the best evacuation routes, and guides and mobile devices communicate with each other using machine-to-machine learning (working in similar way to GPS systems that can navigate drivers around traffic).
  • Data supplied by sensors around the site are used to map fire locations and smoke levels, and accordingly prepare evacuation routes in real-time is prepared.
  • RFID ID badges can be used to count and identify those at the muster point, and identify any still missing.

Protecting lives and cultural artefacts

The proposed IoT-based smart evacuation model would help library and museum custodians to exercise their dual function: to preserve and house items of cultural value, and to offer the public a safe and convenient facility. In the event of a fire or other hazard, the evacuation system would assist visitors and library staff to quickly and safely exit the building. Once safely evacuated, measures to protect the articles of cultural value can then be more effectively implemented.

Chintan Pandya is the Head Librarian at Anant National University, Ahmedabad, India. His research interests include disaster risk reduction, the internet of things, technology application in education, and sustainable development goals.

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