Integrated Security Services, Inc., New York

The Reflexive Reality Behind Mass Panic: A How To Guide To Survive An Emergency

21 Apr

mushroom cloud

September 11, 2001, New York City’s World Trade Center, intense fires are burning in and above the impact zones at the twin towers struck by hijacked airliners. People evacuating from the 110-story towers realize they are in danger, but they are not in a blind panic. There is no screaming or trampling of one another. As tenants descend the densely packed stairwells, they are waiting in line, taking turns and assisting those who need help. Some office workers hold doors open and direct traffic. Thanks to the orderly evacuation and unofficial rescue efforts, the vast majority of people below the impact zones get out of the buildings alive.

The Twin Towers evacuation shows that there was none of the “mass panic” that many emergency planners expect to see in a disaster. In fact, a close analysis of other major disasters, find little to support the assumption that ordinary people lose their heads during extraordinary situations. Much to the contrary, what researchers find is that individuals not only behave sensibly in emergencies, but also display a solidarity that can be a valuable asset.

The Myth of Mass Panic

The image of the panicked crowd is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination. From Hollywood disaster movies with people running wildly in all directions and screaming hysterically to news reports of mobs of shoppers trampling each other during holiday panic buying.

The idea of mass panic shapes how we think, plan for, and respond to emergency events. Many public officials assume that non-emergency trained professionals are incapable of responding to the true nature of a dangerous condition and by not concealing the emergency the likelihood of overreacting and panic increases.

A historical look back into incidents where mass panic resulted in mass casualties can teach us many things about reactive response. A medical doctor and his wife, who survived the 1942 Cocoanut Grove Theater fire in Boston that claimed the lives of 492 people, simply attributed his survival technique to, “don’t follow the crowd.” Studies like this and other terrible tragedies like the Chicago Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 in which 600 people perished, has resulted in important changes to emergency planning. First responders and safety professionals are now suggesting that ordinary people should be viewed as “first responders” and given practical information about their situation so that they can make rational choices. Instead of seeking to herd people as if they are too frightened to make a rational decision, emergency managers are now looking to facilitate the self-organizing capabilities of crowds.

Cracks in the approach

Too often security engineers are solely tasked with designing solutions for emergency egress and ply an unbalanced approach to architectural design rather than focus on communication technologies that might help people make informed decisions about their own safety.

So how do you prevent yourself and, perhaps, others from falling into panic mode? Well, before you can save others you have to focus on YOU. Reactive behavior is contagious, and if you want to reduce panic during a real or perceived emergency remaining calm will help you help others. But really fear and panic begin way before you actually come in contact with a real emergency. Every day, we are at the mercy of the only constant in nature: change. The weather, your health, your job and even where you lay your head to rest at night are subject to change, and that’s when the fear and anxiety needs to be managed.

I believe there are 4 basic steps to remaining in control:

  1. Work daily on your fears by empowering yourself with better knowledge and tools. Taking a basic self-defense or survival class are just one of the ways you can increase your tactical awareness. Basic and advanced first aid courses given by the Red Cross can help you come to terms with surviving an injury or assisting someone else who is injured. These are just two of the best ways for you to prepare yourself for trouble and help abate fear.
  2. Planning. All of us should have some plans for different contingencies like getting lost, becoming immobilized, running out of gas, food, etc. You should plan for many kinds of trouble and think of that planning as an insurance policy, or better yet, a good luck charm. Take note of the environments you frequent most, the office building you work in, public transit system you utilize for your daily commute, roads you travel to get to your office and really work on identifying alternatives in the event of a emergency. Without a well thought out plan, panic is certain and will lead to irrational and dangerous decisions only aggravating your emergency further.
  3. Fear and panic are usually the result of some form of denial, “it happens to other people, not me or in my town.” We are now living through a time where if it already hasn’t happened within close proximity to where you live, work or play then it will. Expect your daily life to have complications and at some point fall victim to Murphy’s Law,. This way you will rarely be caught off guard and fear will have less room to grow in you.
  4. Finally, seek out something bigger than yourself. This could be your faith, or your drive to see friends and family if you get through this. Whatever works for you, just grab onto something more important than your fear, and use that motivation to push through whatever scary situation you find yourself in.