How people behave in disasters…

Oct 28, 2016

This week Charlie talks about how people react to incidents and shares some thoughts from a seminar that he attended at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Headquarters in Glasgow.

Yesterday I attended a seminar on ‘Managing Community Cohesion After Major Terrorist Attacks’ at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Headquarters in Glasgow. There were lots of highlights, including a presentation on the use of social media during major incidents, a very frank talk on the issues of managing scenes and also the aftermath of the Lee Rigby murder. One of the items which caught my attention was a talk by Professor John Preston on how communities and groups of people behave after disasters, so I thought I would write this week’s blog on the subject.

The way movies portray people’s behaviour in disasters is wildly inaccurate. They very rarely panic and they don’t try and save themselves at the expense of others. Normal people react to danger by doing the best they can for themselves and those with them.

In reality people often do not get out of a disaster situation quick enough. “One of the most graphic examples of crowd passivity in recent times occurred in New York’s Twin Towers after the hijacked planes hit them on 9/11. You’d have thought those who survived the initial impact would have headed for the nearest exit pretty quickly. Most did the opposite: they prevaricated. Those who eventually got out waited six minutes on average before moving to the stairs, and some hung around for half an hour, according to a study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)”.

John Leach, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth, has studied the actions of survivors and victims from dozens of disasters around the world. He has found that in life-threatening situations, around 75% of people are so bewildered by the situation that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. They become mentally paralysed. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives.

So how do people behave in a disaster? John Preston outlined three behaviours in his talk:

  • People behave rationally. What we know is, they behave rationally to what seems relevant to them. So if they feel there is going to be a shortage of fuel they will go out, find and buy fuel even if the authorities tell them not to and this makes the shortage of fuel more likely.
  • People are helpful to others during disasters. People will put their own lives at risk to help others or help to put out a fire in a neighbour’s house when theirs has already burnt down.
  • People are vocal during disasters and will turn to social media to express their emotions, post their videos, pictures and even live stream the event.

So if we know this, how should we change our business continuity plans to make use of these effects:

  • To get people to behave how we want them to in an incident and to avoid the paralysis which can happen, we need to give people clear and precise instructions of what to do. Messages that come from a recognised authority seem to be more effective.
  • Recognise that people want to help others, but may become injured by putting themselves in unnecessary danger. There is a time for heroics, but leaders may need to stop people putting themselves in danger and leave the situation to the emergency services who have the training and equipment to deal with the incident.
  • Social media is an invaluable source of up to date information on an incident. Those responding to the incident should do their own monitoring of social media to give them up to date situational awareness. Relying on corporate communications at head office will not provide information to the front line quick enough. You may not need monitoring tools to do this but just follow the incident hashtag.

The more we understand how people behave during an incident the better we can tailor the response and give ourselves the best chance of successfully managing an incident. 

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