Office of News and Information
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Phone: (410) 516-7160 / Fax (410) 516-5251
November 23, 1996
For Immediate Release
CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman
The Science of Siting:
Where should fire stations be located to make sure engines can
respond anywhere in the city within 10 minutes? What's the lowest
number of fire stations needed to provide this level of coverage?
And if the nearest fire crew is occupied, how soon could a backup
Using Math to Pick Prime
For more than a quarter of a century,
Charles ReVelle has
wrestled with questions such as these. ReVelle a professor of
geography and environmental engineering at
The Johns Hopkins
University, is one of the founders of a young discipline called
location science. Instead of relying on guesswork or playing
politics, ReVelle uses complex mathematics and powerful computers
to propose locations for important public facilities.
Sometimes, his research finds a flaw in traditional emergency
planning practices. For example, city ambulances are often housed
at fire stations because local leaders believe it is convenient
and economical. But by studying operating costs and constructing
mathematical models, ReVelle found that cities could improve
their ambulance coverage by basing the vehicles without regard to
where fire stations are located. ReVelle and one of his students
are using this same approach to decide where a region's medical
rescue helicopters should be located to provide the fastest aid
to the most residents.
ReVelle's tools can also be applied to decisions on where a broad
array of public and private activities, emissions inspection
stations, pipelines and even landfills should be located. "My
thrust is to recognize problems that need to be solved and to
create the mathematics to solve them efficiently," he says.
In recognition of his groundbreaking work, ReVelle was one of two
scholars who recently received the first Lifetime Achievement
Awards presented by the Section on Location Analysis of the
Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.
ReVelle and Richard Francis of the University of Florida were
lauded for their contributions to "the development of location
analysis as a field of both theoretical and applied research."
ReVelle was cited for a prolific output of material. The Hopkins
professor has written or co-authored more than 150 scholarly
articles and six books, with another two volumes in the works.
His interest in location science dates back three decades to his
days as an environmental engineering graduate student at Cornell
University. There, ReVelle first tackled public policy questions
by using a branch of mathematics called optimization or linear
programming. In his doctoral thesis, he proposed ways to control
the spread of tuberculosis within large populations. Later, he
drew up efficient and equitable plans to allocate water pollution
cleanup costs among communities and industries. He also proposed
new methods for sizing multi-use reservoirs.
In the 1970s, ReVelle expanded his research into siting issues.
He proposed the best places to open health clinics, libraries,
industrial plants and warehouses. As computers became more
powerful, he explored more intricate problems involving fire
equipment and ambulances. He factored in the different response
times demanded of engine companies, which pump water and
extinguish the flames, and truck companies, which carry ladders
and rescue people from burning buildings. ReVelle considered how
traffic congestion could affect a ambulance's arrival time and
the need for a backup response when the nearest emergency crew is
unavailable. "These problems have grown in sophistication over
the years," ReVelle says. "Here's the most complicated question
we've solved: Where should the ambulances be sited, so that the
maximum number of calls will have a response within the time
standard on 95 percent of the occasions in which the ambulance is
When he's not studying emergency calls, ReVelle tries to crack
other public planning puzzles. He and his students have plotted
hazardous waste transportation routes that avoid population
centers. They have shown how to design compact, cost-efficient
nature preserves that allow the greatest number of plant and
animal species to thrive. They have also figured out how to
harvest timber without destroying the forest's wildlife
In the mid-1960s, ReVelle was one of a handful of researchers
involved in location science. Today, the field boasts hundreds of
active researchers from disciplines as diverse as economics,
electrical engineering and urban planning. The competition for
research grants has become intense, ReVelle says, yet location
scientists still have a tough time influencing public policy.
Partly, this is because skilled location analysts often lack the
time, talent or will to "sell" their findings to government
officials, he says. Nevertheless, ReVelle is pleased that the
discipline he helped launch remains vital. "I am very gratified,"
he says. "I'm glad to be working in this field. I can't let it
go. It's too much fun to let go."
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