Dynamist Blog

How to Speed Up Evacuations

Reader Peter Hoh writes in response to the post below:

Just read the WaPost article you linked to. Interesting. And the idea of designing procedures around human behavior makes a lot of sense.

As a former schoolteacher, I couldn't help but notice that Mr. Vedantam failed to mention how classrooms behave differently than groups of adults in an office building. For one thing, schools practice evacuations far more frequently than office buildings. Then there is the difference in the group dynamics. An office full of adults will behave differently than a room full of children and one adult whose authority they've been conditioned to respect.

As a teacher, I was never fond of fire drills, but I really disliked having to leave our building for false alarms. We teachers might like to confer with each other before we leave with our classes, but we have our responses drilled into us and our students. Our students look to us to determine how to react, and none of us teachers wants to be the last one to take our class out. But outside, we tell our nicely lined up students to stay quiet and then we gather in small groups to confer and try to make sense of the situation, just the way that office workers do before they leave the building.

The key is to make evacuation, rather than staying in, the default, so that people worry less about feeling stupid for leaving and more about being the last ones out. Drills also establish a routine that overcomes the instinct to confer. I was going to add that military discipline is all about replacing such human instincts with behavior that makes for survival in unusual circumstances. But then reader Dale Borgeson made that point better.

Granted that the civilain world is different than the military but the human tendencies are the same. What's different is the training. I was on a aircraft carrier. When General Quarters sounds (AKA Battle Stations) 5000 people have three minutes to get to where they are supposed to go. The ladders (stairs) are one person wide and quite steep. There are rules on how you move during GQ, up and forward on the starboard side and down and aft on the port. Every once in a while someone forgets what he's supposed to do and stands in a passage or at the top of a ladder trying to decide. Invariably, he gets run over and ends up on the deck. It's quite amazing how well this all works most of the time.

Everyone is trained on this sort of thing fairly intensely, both in boot camp (or OCS) and continually with drills when at sea. When the alarm sounds, not just GQ but any of the many other types of alarm, everyone moves immediately. No pauses for discussion as in your article. Everyone is trained, at least a bit, in fire fighting, how to use a hose (both as a lead and as a follower), how to use emergency breathing equipment, how to attack a fire in various situations, etc.

I remember when I went to fire fighting school in boot camp. On the first simulated GQ we had with a real fuel fire, everyone reacted as you described. When the alarm sounded ten of us assigned to the hose team ran over to the hose and just stood there. About three seconds later the instructors trained two five-inch hoses on the group. A five-inch hose at full pressure puts out a LOT of water and we were immediately on our faces in the mud (this was outdoors). The instructors were screaming at us that we were all dead and why weren't we doing what we were supposed to do. They then ran over and picked us by the back of our shirts, all the time screaming at us, "You go to the hose valve, you grab the nozzle, you pull the hose off the rack", etc. By the end of the day we were were working well together.

Perhaps becuse of this training 35 years ago, whenever I go into any public place I always look for the exits and escape paths. I wouldn't be surprised if the person that the article said just immediately left the WTC was a Navy vet.

Unfortunately, as the old Boy Who Cried Wolf story teaches, too many false alarms also constitute a kind of training. I once lived in an apartment building where the fire alarms went off constantly, always without any real fire. So after a while, no one ever left. Then one night there was a (fortunately small) fire--and the alarm didn't go off. They had to bang on our doors to get us out.

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