Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Disaster Psychology: Part 2 – Behavior-Based Disaster Planning

In last week’s blog we introduced the topic of disaster psychology and made the point that research in human responses to disasters and emergency scenarios suggests that the concept of an anti-social, irrational panic behavior that people believe is rampant is actually rare. People do not really panic in disasters and emergencies. It is possible, as we discussed, but it’s not common.

So if people aren’t panicking, what are they doing?

Well, we should preface this discussion by saying that human behavior is never so simple as to allow us to completely describe it in a blog post. But, to oversimplify things a bit, people typically respond in pro-social and rational ways following disasters and emergencies. Think back to coverage of nearly any disaster or wide-spread emergency and you’ll often see many examples of this – people helping other people. Sure you’ll also see examples that seem irrational or anti-social, but these are often the exceptions (which is why they are being reported in the news, because they are exceptional) or they are being misunderstood (fear responses and running from disasters are often the most rational behavior given the situation if you think about it. We have to remember that we must define rational behavior using the information the person had at the time of the incident, not what we have in hindsight).

This pro-social and rational behavior is not without it’s challenges. For example, a part of disaster and emergency response that people often take for granted is determining if there really is a threat, known as the “risk identification” phase. Although safety professionals and emergency planners try to drill into people that whenever you hear an alarm such as a fire alarm that means action, such as immediate evacuation, is necessary. People often spend the first few seconds or minutes following an alarm looking for confirmation, particularly by consulting those nearby or with loved ones, before acting (think about the last time you were in a building where the alarm went off as an example of this). The fact is we’ve heard too many false-alarms to take things seriously.  

There are many more subtle but important points about human behavior in emergencies. For more information we encourage you to look at our article in Professional Safety, which goes into more detail and also has references to spur you on to looking at the research. Additionally, a great and accessible book on the topic was released recently that we recommend, called The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley.

So how can we incorporate human behavior into our disaster and emergency planning? Three areas in particular deserve consideration:

Emergency System Design – The most important element of disaster planning is to identify what behavior you want out of people, and then figure out how to make it easy for people to do what you want them to do and hard for them to do what you don’t want to do. For example, in a fire scenario we want people to move toward the exit, sound the alarm, and use a fire extinguisher if the situation calls for it and they are properly trained. If that’s the case why would you not have a fire extinguisher and a fire alarm station near every exit? To put it anywhere else is making it easy for people to do what we don’t want them to do and hard to do what is right.

Look at signage. Look at procedures. Look at evacuation paths. Use a Prevention through Design Mentality. Consider all aspects of how the emergency plans should work and how you can design the work environment to make the plans work.

Training – A huge mistake people make in emergency training is assuming that telling someone something in a class will make the person do the right things in an emergency. The fact is that, in a manner of speaking, the brain you use in training is different than the brain you use in an emergency. This is the root of the problem people deal with when they talk about the issue with confined space rescue fatalities.

To fix this, we need to try and access that part of our brain that we are more likely to use in an emergency – the instinctual, muscle memory part. The key is to practice, practice, and practice some more! Rote tasks should not require thought. The fact is that in an emergency your brain is overloaded so you need to ensure that cognitive resources are not wasted on simple things like trying to remember where the evacuation meeting place is. Make the training as realistic as possible as well. Don’t be afraid to hit emotional chords as well. People remember emotional events better than non-emotional ones.

You also might consider conducting drills with others in your immediate vicinity. For example, when was the last time you did a drill with your local fire department or police department (e.g. for active shooter scenarios)? What about your neighboring businesses? In a real disaster research shows that the first responders are the “walking wounded,” which means that the people around your organization may be the first responders, and your employees may be first responders for them. Perhaps some coordination, site-familiarization, and even some cross-training is in order.

A last point on training – beware training people inadvertently by giving them the wrong message. By this we mean, always avoid conducting alarm tests without having your employees do the thing you want them to do if it was a real alarm (e.g. evacuate). If you have an alarm test and the only thing your employees are to do is ignore the alarm and keep working, what are you training your employees to do?

Leadership – Leaders in emergencies are not always the same leaders in non-emergency situations. Research shows that leaders in emergencies and disasters are those who are credible (i.e. look and sound like they know what they are doing) and who offer novel solutions to the problems people are facing. This means, if you want good leaders in emergencies make them look the part and train them thoroughly in problem solving so that they learn to think outside of the box, particularly in high stress situations.

Additionally, leaders must be clear communicators. A big mistake organizations and governments have done in the past is either not communicated or poorly communicated risk information to people (usually because of a misguided hope of avoiding mass panic). Make sure your leaders know how to communicate clearly in these sorts of high stress scenarios.


The bottom line is that, like most other aspects of management, rather than creating a plan and hoping that our employees conform to the plan, a more successful approach would be to understand how people will behave in a disaster or emergency and make our plans conform to that behavior. When we do that we often find that rather than being the biggest problem, people are often a solution to many of our problems following a disaster or emergency.

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