Hey! Randy

What Do I Do?

Posted by heyrandy on August 23, 2012

The Unthinkable Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, Amanda Ripley, 2008

The ship suddenly lists. The building shakes, The fire alarm sounds. Would you know what to do in any of those situations? Would do it, without hesitation? Most people would not act without hesitation.

The author examines many past disasters to give us a picture of how people react to a sudden disaster. Most people are initially like the deer in the headlights. They freeze. They do not comprehend what the situation is like. They do not understand the danger.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks give us a good example to study. The author recounts one woman’s actions after the plane hit her tower. She did not know why the building was shaking. She did not know what to do until someone said that an airplane had hit the building. Then she still did not know what to do. When she finally decided to leave the building, she first returned  to her desk to retrieve some trivial personal items. This cost her precious time. She was not the only one to do this. What is more stunning is that this woman was the designated disaster evacuation leader on her floor.

The real value of the book is in its analysis of human behavior in disasters and in its revelation that you are the only person that you can count on in a disaster.

Most people do not think any thing dangerous can happen to them. It never has, it never will. This leads to complacency and boredom. We ignore the pre-flight safety instructions flight crews give to the passengers. Yet such instructions can save lives.

However, safety instructions are seldom complete. We are told what to do but not the why. None of the pre-flight safety presentations I heard ever mentioned why you should leave your carry-on luggage. (Getting it slows down the exit of those getting of the plane last and blocks the aisles by taking up more space.)

The book also reveals that engineers do not understand how people react in an emergency. The World Trade Center Towers took twice as long to evacuate as engineers had estimated. The stairways, although meeting the building code, were too narrow. To make them wider would have meant losing rental space.

The prevailing model of human action is the water molecule. The idea is that people flow like water in pipes. Molecules are not emotional. They are passive. People quite emotional. They deny reality. They forget. They become irrational. Better models of human behavior are available, but getting the designers to use them is difficult.

The book should be required reading for every safety engineer. The book raises many questions about prevailing assumptions. Everyone else would benefit from the book because it leads one to think about safety. In a disaster you are often on your own.

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