GLOBAL: World-first research on bomb attacks

How would a city cope if suffered a catastrophic terrorist bombing attack or a natural disaster caused by an earthquake or a cyclonic storm?

Dr Tuan Ngo (pictured) and a team of Melbourne University researchers believe they have the answer. With a federal government-funded, million-dollar grant, the researchers expect to provide police and emergency authorities with accurate details of the effects of a bomb blast within the city's central business district.

Ngo and his multi-disciplinary Melbourne team have developed a computer-based platform with software that offers rapid access to information online. The university engineers, along with the national geological survey Geoscience Australia, have already surveyed and compiled data on almost 2,000 buildings in Melbourne and Sydney's CBDs.

The database contains information on each building's façade, structural systems and critical underground facilities such as water, gas, communication and utility networks. These can be analysed and visualised by the computer program for disaster management and security planning.

Ngo says the research is not confined to bomb blasts but to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, fierce storms, flooding and fires as well.

"Our aim is to expand the platform to cover all such events," he says. "For example, we are looking at the effect of flooding on the urban infrastructure and the impact of an earthquake and other hazards."

Yet many of the data Dr Ngo and his team have compiled about the consequences of a catastrophic event on the city and its inhabitants have been derived from studies at the Woomera weapons research facility, 500 kilometres north-west of Adelaide.

"Between 2002 and 2007, we were involved in many of the bomb tests at the Woomera testing ground," he says. "We are the only university group in Australia to have taken part in most of those tests."

The researchers worked with security companies to test various building products, such as doors and windows as well as different structural systems, to collect information about the robustness and strength of the various materials.

The federal government has been closely involved in the project through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's national security and science and technology branches.

Ngo's studies of the effects of bombs on buildings began in 2002 when he was completing his PhD with Professor Pryian Mendis. The two engineers found that Australia's tall buildings were likely to collapse following even a moderate bomb blast.

This followed an assessment of the buildings and the construction of a computer model of a standard 52-storey Australian-designed skyscraper.

Using sophisticated computer software, they then investigated what would happen to the structure under extreme loading caused by bomb blasts. They warned that during such events most tall buildings would probably suffer progressive collapse.

This occurs when a section of the building fails to support the load above and triggers a cascade of failures leading to the collapse of most or all of the building. The Murrah building in Oklahoma collapsed in 1995 after a bomb went off and the World Trade Center suffered the same fate in 2001.

It was a result of this early research that the Melbourne team was awarded $600,000 (US$530,000) from the government to cover the costs of four projects related to critical infrastructure protection, including buildings, bridges, water pipelines, dams, reservoirs and so on. Last month , the researchers received a further $350,000 for the fifth project.

Ngo says the computer platform developed by the researchers has a modelling capability that can be integrated with the Google Earth, Google Maps and the Microsoft Virtual Earth programs. Using the platform, police and emergency services can visualise the damage that might be caused by a bomb blast or natural hazard.

"This is a multi-platform technology you can use with different mapping systems," he says. "One of its main features is its ability to provide an assessment of the complicated impact of a blast in an urban environment with its channelling and fragmentation effects caused by different types of bombs."

The researchers have already developed mapping systems of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane that contain precise details of all natural and man-made features. With this information, the technology can predict the impact of a bomb blast and provide real time information about safe evacuation routes.

"The accuracy of this technology is based on analysing variables such as the type of explosive, the fragmentation effects caused by the device and varying effects of the urban environment," Ngo says.

"Imagine if the Americans knew how the buildings were going to collapse during the 11 September attacks on New York's twin towers in 2001. A lot of lives would have been saved."

He says the software system is also capable of predicting the size of the charge that caused a blast and such information could prove vital during police investigations.

It has already been successfully used by state police during counter-terrorism exercises and the latest government grant will enable the team to create an online program to provide vital information to all emergency and police services across the nation in real time.

"This is the first system in the world to combine evacuation information, building and infrastructure vulnerability as well as post-blast analysis," Ngo says.

One of the first challenges facing the researchers when they started the project was what action should the authorities take if a car parked in the city was believed to contain a bomb. How could the effects of a blast be estimated should the bomb explode and how would any evacuation take place? For example, how far from the car would streets be cordoned off and how many buildings would need to be evacuated?

"In some cases, it might be better to keep people within a building if its structure was sound. That's because allowing people to leave and go outside could make things worse," said Ngo.

"Our platform could be used by police and emergency workers to assess those buildings and decide which were safe, which should be evacuated, and to look at a map and determine the best evacuation route - and all that could be decided in 10 or 15 minutes."

Ngo says the system could be used in any city in the world provided it had good communications and a command centre.

"We have now completed all the features and although some still need to be improved, I expect that within two years we will have a prototype of the system," he says. "An enormous amount of work is required to compile all the data and although I doubt we can do it for all the capital cities within two years, the proto-type can be used so each city can add the necessary data to the platform."