GW Engineering Students Help WMATA Save Lives

June 6, 2023

GW Engineering students Eliese Ottinger, Alejandro Medina Mora, Kaveena Patel, and Islay Van Dusen outside of WMATA's L'Enfant Plaza headquarters

Emergency preparedness of the Metrorail system is one of the pressing challenges for the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. GW Engineering Management and Systems Engineering (EMSE) students Eliese Ottinger, Alejandro Medina Mora, Kaveena Patel, and Islay Van Dusen worked to tackle this issue in their senior design project, “Locating Emergency Response Facilities in the Metrorail System: A Decision Support Tool,” which they presented to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) as well as at the 2023 IEEE Systems and Information Engineering Design Symposium (SIEDS). The student research being conducted demonstrates the potential of engineering to address many of the challenges affecting our society today.

This paper aimed to support the WMATA Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) leadership team in determining appropriate locations for response personnel to minimize response times throughout the sprawling metro system. To assess this, the students developed a model which relies on historical emergency incident data and traffic information to project response times from various locations. The team’s models demonstrate the potential for significant improvement in response time by relocating or adding new response bases.

The team was formed in their class taught by Professor Eric Dano and Joost Santos, who advised them throughout the research project alongside Professor Erica Gralla. Dano and Santos invited sponsors such as WMATA OEP representative and GW adjunct professor, Adam Jachimowicz, to present pitches to the students. After they heard Jachimowicz’s pitch to help save lives, Mora says they reached out the same day to establish communication. 

“I travel via metro to school every day and my teammates also use the metro frequently, so the emergency response to incidents at all stations was very relevant and interesting to us. Being able to have an impact on Metrorail riders’ safety and lives was something that drew us all to the project as well,” Patel stated.

After the recent uptick in shootings, additional safety measures have been implemented in some Metro stations, such as an increased police presence during rush hour. However, the response time of additional emergency management personnel remains an issue. The more advantageous locations the team recommended to OEP when presenting at WMATA’s L’Enfant Plaza headquarters could improve incident response times by up to 27 minutes or 67% throughout the Metrorail system.

Heat map of incident response times to emergencies

“Presenting the project at WMATA felt amazing, and I was super excited to share our hard work. We were able to have top executives, such as the Vice President of Safety, in the room,” Mora said. “We all felt happy and excited when they mentioned how they will use our findings as they move forward with advocating for a relocation of emergency response teams.”

Ottinger echoed Mora’s sentiments and said, “Sharing the results of our project with WMATA was fulfilling as they really engaged with us and discussed how they could proceed using these results in making their decisions. If we can help them better respond to emergencies and consequently improve the safety of the Metrorail system, that would be great!”

At IEEE SIEDS, the team won the best paper award, and these significant results are what sealed the deal. SIEDS is a student-focused international forum for applied research, development, and design in Systems and Information Engineering. However, projects must extend beyond just the analysis of systems and include the synthesis of alternative solutions to a problem. While the above results are specific to WMATA, the tool the students developed could be easily adapted to other public transit systems to support decisions on the location of emergency personnel.

“It was a tough competition with many teams having great projects, so we were very happy to win! We had a lot of support from our project advisors and WMATA and we couldn’t have done it without them,” Patel said. 

Ultimately, the real-world impact of this project was the students’ focus. To Van Dusen, winning the best paper award was just the cherry on top of an already rewarding experience. She stated, “Knowing that the residents of the DMV will benefit from our hard work was a huge motivator and gave our results a tangible quality that is very satisfying.”