Take the panic out of emergencies

Employers must make sure people can safely escape their workplace. They must have arrangements for evacuating buildings and must effectively communicate their emergency plans…

“Fire! Fire! Run!”

In the movies, they always yell something dramatic. However, have you ever heard a “routine” announcement for someone to report to a desk? It may actually have been a coded message for staff to carry out an emergency plan.

Codes are used everywhere from stadiums to supermarkets. Staff are told to never shout “fire!” in case it panics people into stampeding for the exits. But is this right?

If you saw media reports of the Costa Concordia cruise-ship that “Captain Coward” ran aground, you’d probably say “Yes”. Indeed, one BBC headline read “Ship rescue panic caught on film.” However, passenger videos clearly showed people queuing despite obviously being scared stupid!

What is panic?

Panic is an inborn fight-or-flight response. It involves a sense of fear that prevents logical thought. But fear is not panic. You still behave rationally when frightened.

Panic equals self-preservation. You don’t take orders or follow plans. Panic is where you’ll kill the person in front to get ahead… you don’t have time to film things and certainly won’t queue!

Costa Concordia survivor Rose Metcalf said “There was absolute panic… we were creating human chains to try and pass people over gaps.” But doesn’t that sounds more like self-sacrifice?!

How do people really behave in emergencies?

To understand people, you need look at them as individuals and groups.

With individuals, much depends on their personality. Some will be first in the lifeboat with Captain Coward! But others are better in a crisis. In fact, only a small proportion go to pieces.

When emergency plans were originally developed for public buildings it was sensibly thought people followed orders from authority figures.

Nowadays though, people are less trusting of authority and rely more on their own feeling of what’s “right”… and if they’ve watched too many Hollywood disaster movies your Fire Marshals will have serious problems! Therefore, while you may ask people to do things, they may decide they know better.

How do groups react?

Group influence is also important. Psychologists say there’s a “hive mind” that is equally powerful and fragile…

Group members really want to conform. In a famous psychological test a group had to choose matching pairs from sets of lines. When three people chose incorrectly, the test subject would in 37% of cases make that same choice even though they knew it was wrong. The need to “fit in” made them doubt their own choice. But where someone “broke rank” and gave the right answer then 95% of the time the test subject would choose correctly.

This effect means bad ideas can quickly develop into mass belief while someone stronger-willed may break it.

What’s all this got to do with emergency plans?

To understand how things apply to emergencies you need to explore Buridan’s ass… umm that’s to say if you place a donkey equally between two hay piles it will starve before choosing one! It would actually choose randomly but the delaying effects of making close decisions are real.

Two things happen when people are equally between two fire exits. Someone will randomly pick one exit and then almost everyone else prefers it. As most favour one door it will take longer to get out! The drive to conform means many will stick with that first person’s choice, even though it’s a bad one.

Sussex University psychology lecturer Dr John Drury says “evacuations that go badly when there are crushes, blocked exits or struggles are often based on beliefs that were actually quite reasonable at the time. The problem is often that people don’t have enough information, rather than that they are overreacting.”

Emergency planning tips:

  • Don’t try to control panic. It’s very unlikely to happen.
  • Carry out regular drills. They increase knowledge and the chances instructions will be followed.
  • Explain the reasoning behind emergency procedures. People are more likely to follow plans if they see their purpose.
  • Give clear trustworthy information in an emergency. It’s OK to feel fear.

Contact Ellis Whittam to take the panic out of your arrangements!

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