Rethinking emergency: trust and resilience

Follow the crowd

21 June 2018

Dr Chris Cocking argues that panic is a poor model for behaviour in emergencies and there should be more emphasis on trust and resilience

At the LABC conference in Leicester this March, I was asked whether building control surveyors should give special consideration to academic research on crowd emergency behaviour over and above current guidance. My short answer was an emphatic ‘Yes’.

It is vital to think about human factors in emergency evacuations, as no matter how well buildings and their alarm systems are designed for safe egress we must also consider how people will behave in such situations.

If we do not, we will only partly be able to ensure safe and efficient emergency evacuations. In this article, I hope to show how the study of crowd emergency behaviour can inform the current debate on how we can improve safety in high-rise buildings and prevent avoidable tragedies such as the one at Grenfell Tower from happening again.

Panic model research

Research into crowd behaviour by psychologists over the past 40 years has produced a significant body of work to show that traditional views of crowds as irrational are not supported by evidence.

Panic is not a useful or accurate term for crowd behaviour in emergencies, and should not be used to describe such incidents

Research conducted by myself and others has shown that the assumptions of the ‘panic model’ of emergency behaviour are not borne out by reality. So, for instance, the fear that is often associated with being in an emergency does not usually overwhelm people’s reason to the extent that they engage in selfish or irrational behaviour. Furthermore, if individuals start behaving in selfish or irrational ways, rather than others mindlessly joining in – as is often expected – bystanders tend to intervene to calm the individuals concerned or regulate their behaviour.

While crowd disasters are often reported in the media as ‘mass panic’ or ‘stampedes’, detailed examination of events afterwards rarely supports such irrationalist conclusions. Indeed, panic is often noticeable by its absence. An analysis of human behaviour during the World Trade Center attacks of 11 September 2001 based on published survivor accounts found that less than 1% of the behaviours observed could be classified as panic, and people who tried pushing past others on the stairwells were told to wait in turn by others.

There are also quite serious implications to approaching emergency planning and response based on a panic model. So, for example, if planners assume that crowds cannot be trusted to behave rationally in emergencies, they will be more likely to adopt paternalistic or even coercive strategies to protect people from their potential worst excesses. The 1989 disaster at the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield is now widely accepted as a tragic example of the consequences of viewing crowd management as a public order rather than a public safety issue, and of how victims can be wrongly blamed for being responsible for a tragedy. The authorities may also withhold information in a misplaced attempt to prevent the possibility of panic when people discover the scale of the threat they face. There is therefore a consensus among academic researchers that panic is not a useful or accurate term for crowd behaviour in emergencies, and that it should not be used to describe such incidents.

Crowd resilience

In response to these problems with the panic model approach, the Social Identity Model of Collective Resilience (SIMCR) was developed by John Drury, myself and Steve Reicher in 2009. This suggests that disasters foster a common identity among those affected – ‘we’re all in this together’ – that tends to result in orderly, altruistic behaviour as people respond to and escape from a shared threat.

Cooperative rather than selfish behaviour predominates, and any lack of cooperation is usually because of physical constraints, especially in densely packed crowds, rather than a result of any inherently selfish behaviour on the part of the crowd.

The SIMCR is supported by evidence from recent emergencies. Research that I did with Drury into the 7 July 2005 London bombings found that while witnesses reported individual fear and distress, this did not become mass panic.

Instead, there tended to be a sense of general calm and cooperation as a common identity emerged in response to a shared threat. Therefore, we concluded that people in emergencies behave in a much more resilient manner than is often expected, and we should focus on crowd resilience rather than vulnerability in emergency planning and response.

Practical steps

The SIMCR suggests a variety of practical steps that can be taken to ensure safer and more efficient emergency evacuations. For instance, the emphasis should always be on providing more rather than less information, because if people are presented with clear, practical information on which they can act to escape threat or keep themselves and their loved ones safe, then they will usually do so.

There is minimal evidence that people panic if made aware of a threat; in fact, the evidence there is from such situations tends to show the opposite. Furthermore, deliberately withholding information could delay evacuations and may cause problems in future emergencies, as people may not entirely trust messages from the authorities if they believe these are not sufficiently forthcoming.

It is also not a good idea to include the phrase ‘Don’t panic’ in public messages, as this can create an expectation that there is a possible cause for panic that is not being revealed, thus potentially engendering public mistrust.

However, it is not just a simple case of providing information; it is also important to think about the content of any safety messages and the way they are constructed. Information needs to be delivered confidently in a clear and unambiguous way, and be from a credible source with which people can identify.

Trained fire wardens

As well as having good public address and fire alarm systems, it is crucial that there are also trained fire wardens on the ground during emergency evacuations who are familiar with the location, the reasons for the evacuation and the closest possible route of escape.

This is particularly important when there are fires as people don’t often use fire exits equitably during evacuations, tending to try to leave via the way they entered, especially if they are unfamiliar with the venue. However, this may not be the quickest or simplest path to safety.

Planning priority

If I were asked to prioritise 1 message for emergency planners to consider, it would be that they should be aware that crowds tend to behave better than expected, and that the concept of mass panic is largely a myth.

Therefore, paternalistic panic models should not be used in emergency planning and response. Instead, perspectives that encourage greater crowd resilience are likelier to result in safer and more efficient emergency evacuations.

This is particularly important when considering fires in high-rise buildings, as the time in which people can safely evacuate is often limited. It seems clear that there will be numerous recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of the Building Regulations and fire safety as to how building safety can be improved; as part of this process, I would argue that considering the role of human behaviour during evacuations could also help contribute to safer and more efficient emergency evacuations in future.

Dr Chris Cocking is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton

Further information