UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Red Cell Analytics Lab, a student organization in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), regularly analyzes real-world threats through critical thinking exercises. To understand how a class might respond to a hypothetical crisis in a large lecture hall, the group recently performed an evacuation drill of the 155-seat Cybertorium in the Westgate Building.
The exercise was conducted to supplement the college’s annual review of their safety and security planning. By thinking like an adversary, the group is able to seek out vulnerabilities in crisis response and find ways to keep people safe.
“As an executive board, [Red Cell] creates scenarios that we give general members to solve,” said Shaemus Lunney, the special projects officer who led the drill and senior security and risk analysis (SRA) major. “This could be political in nature, an act of terrorism, and more. We try to implement the scenarios around real-world problems.”
The evacuation plan was one of these problems.
“Many of the problems the Red Cell students take on are conducted with minimum expert input,” Col. Jake Graham, Professor of Practice of Information Science and Technology and the lab’s adviser, said. “I tend to give them ‘mission orders’ or high-level guidance and turn them loose to develop processes and make discoveries on their own.”
Lunney chose several members of the lab to execute the project, including Norman Antonio, Sarah Dragon, Bernie Jewson, Jake Martino, Jared Stoner and Jessica Tatone.
To analyze the response, the group conducted three trials of the evacuation plan. For the first trial, the 60 participants were not guided on how or where to leave the Cybertorium. For the second trial, they were given minimal guidance.
For the final trial, the Lab created a much more elaborate scenario by splitting the room down the middle, with participants on the left side exiting using the top left exit and those on the right side using the exit at the front right of the room. Their hope was that additional guidance would create a quicker and more orderly evacuation.
“Sometimes signs with arrows don’t cut it,” said Lunney, adding that if people are using multiple exits that lead to different areas of the building, it makes the situation less chaotic and generally safer.
By minimizing the traffic flow of those leaving the building, Red Cell was able to exercise more control over the evacuation.
“Organizing a plan with such a large scope is chaos,” Lunney said. “You can’t really plan for specific emergencies. The point [of the project] was to learn what humans do in a crisis.”
One issue the group addressed was informing the participants where all of the exits were located. Many participants were used only to entering and exiting the classroom one way and weren’t aware of additional exits or where they led.
“Not being able to know what exits lead where can lead to big problems,” explained Lunney. “We want people to be more aware of their surroundings and know where they could go.”
For example, a door that leads directly outside may be a better option than one that leads back into the building, depending on the situation. It’s important to know what options are available in order to make the quickest and safest decision.
Lunney shared that the Lab’s exercises make the information learned in courses much more applicable to their future careers.
“Red Cell is an easy way to apply what you learn in the classroom to a real-world experience,” Lunney said.
The group plans to share their findings with the college’s leadership, and Lunney knows that the opportunities presented through participation in various clubs add additional levels to his IST education.
“Through IST I have learned time management and responsibility,” Lunney said. “Having these [IST] clubs as outlets along with a variety of other clubs, allows students to thrive here at Penn State.”
“The innovations that emerge from these novice analysts are free from pre-conceived notions or embedded processes,” concluded Col. Graham. “For me, that is the essence of red teaming.”