Predict and respond

31 July 2011
Dr Andrew Mason
Dr Andrew Mason

In the chaos of the Christchurch earthquakes St John has to get its ambulance service right: are there enough ambulances and paramedics in the worst-hit areas? Are their responses fast enough? If not, what has to be done to get them there and quickly?

Software packages designed by operations research company Optima help dispatchers make these crucial decisions. The software analyses different variables such as traffic flows, road quality and weather conditions to provide information for ambulance movements.

“The model has been likened to the video game Sim City, where you can explore all your ‘what if’ scenarios,” says University of Auckland Engineering Scientist, Dr Andrew Mason, who originally developed the software with colleague Dr Shane Henderson. “You can ask: What if I open an ambulance base here? What if I move an ambulance base?” The software quantifies the impact of these changes, replacing hunches and gut feelings with detailed statistical analysis; it is now being used by emergency services in North America, Europe and Australia.

That is quite an evolution from when the company was founded in 1998 to optimise Air New Zealand crew rosters, saving the airline $15m a year. At that time, Andrew and Shane were also working on a University research project into rostering for the St John Ambulance Service.

“It soon became clear that we needed mathematical tools to work out how many staff were needed,” says Andrew. “We developed a simulation in computer code that we called BARTSim – Better Ambulance Rostering Technology Simulation.

“BARTSim showed tiny flashing ambulances on the city streets, picking up and dropping off patients before returning to base. For the first time, this graphic visualisation let managers see the problems they faced in crew deployment. It helped St John with decisions about where to locate and how to run their bases.”

Word spread, and in 2001 Andrew got a call from the Melbourne Metropolitan Ambulance Service. “Melbourne was a real challenge – it had about five times as many calls, vehicles and roads as Auckland, and much more complexity in its vehicle types, dispatch rules and operational procedures. However, we had an advantage in that we were probably the only group who could demonstrate actual working software.”

Optima won the tender, completed a successful implementation for Melbourne, and took the first steps to becoming the dominant international player in this niche market.

“The years spent by Optima developing this software have taken it to new levels,” says Andrew. Optima Predict™ and new product Optima Live™, which provides real-time decision support for emergency services, is now gaining traction in North America with 12 deals signed – the latest with Denver.

Keeping his links with Optima, Andrew runs a University research programme in Ambulance Logistics. Engineering Science students at honours, masters and PhD level use their Operations Research skills to solve difficult mathematical problems to help save lives.

Former masters student David Richards is now working at the St John Ambulance Service and is helping crews in Christchurch better respond to the disruptions caused by the earthquakes.

“I could never have predicted the impact this software would have,” says Andrew. “Many years of hard work by my colleagues at Optima have grown this seed of an opportunity into one of New Zealand’s most technically advanced software companies.”