It's not SimCity the Halifax version, but researchers at Dalhousie University are designing a video game of sorts that could help emergency planners better prepare for a mass evacuation of the city and possibly save lives.

Ahsan Habib, one of the researchers behind the project, said Halifax's design makes it vulnerable in the event of a disaster.

"In (the) Halifax peninsula we have only five exit and entry points so it poses, in a way, a serious threat to the transport network itself," said Habib at his workplace, the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory or DalTRAC.

Habib's team is responsible for the computer modelling that incorporates traffic statistics to create the patterns and flows that would be expected during a sudden mass evacuation of Halifax, as a result of flooding or some other calamity. 

15 hours to evacuate in major flood

So far researchers have run scenarios based on serious ocean flooding — and the news isn't good.

"We saw that it takes 15 hours to evacuate the entire peninsula assuming that everybody had access to a car and only taking into account congestion," said Habib, adding he was surprised by the estimate. "Fifteen hours is a long time."

Habib said the modelling generates different kinds of scenarios that could unfold during a disaster. 

"Maybe all lanes can be outward from the evacuation point to the destination. We can also look at traffic signal timing changes. We can test (those) kinds of scenarios. We can also see where to evacuate faster. Or what should be the marshal point for all transit users to gather?"

How would the city react in a disaster?

Incorporating the human element into this project is the responsibility of Kevin Quigley, director of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance.

DalTRAC game2

The game uses modelling to depict various scenarios that could impact an evacuation, including traffic flow problems. (Jean Laroche/cbc)

It's his job to anticipate how people might react during a sudden mass evacuation and factor that into the scenarios to be played out in the game.

"We can go through rational planning and exercises," said Quigley. "But I think that this kind of gaming exercise can help us to test and learn and perhaps become more intimately familiar with our frailties and weaknesses as human beings."

Quigley acknowledged there was no way to anticipate every eventuality or to predict every possible action by hundreds of thousands of fleeing Haligonians but he said there was value in getting emergency planners to realize that for themselves in the simulations.

No way to explore all possibilities

"We're going to have failures in our systems and what we need to do is, first of all, move beyond the hubris of thinking that a plan is going to roll out the way we think it's going to roll out. We have to recognize there are going to be uncertainties and failures." 

He said knowing plans could fail would help train emergency personnel how to more quickly change course and hopefully make faster and better decisions in times of real emergency.

Quigley said it was something the mayor of New York City learned first-hand when planes crashed into the World Trade Centre which were home to the city's key emergency centre.

"The plans don't always work the way you think they will," he said. "So when you think about it, (former mayor Rudy) Giuliani didn't have access to cellphones and he didn't have access to his emergency management centre. So there was a plan ... basically up in smoke immediately."

Dalhousie researchers have enough funding to work on the project for two years, but said they would need more time and money to create a full-fledged Halifax emergency evacuation game.