Possible solutions preventing dangerous evacuation behaviours: Results from interviews with crowd safety experts

Centre for Decision Research

Dr Natalie van der Wal is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Decision Research, Leeds University Business School. In her project “EVACUATION”, she aims to improve evacuations by combining insights from decision research and computer science, together with the help of crowd safety professionals.

Green emergency exit sign

Research motivation

Fires, terrorist attacks, building collapses and other emergencies can require an evacuation. Unfortunately, many emergencies lead to injuries and fatalities. Some of these are due to human behaviours during evacuation, such as a delayed response to the incident or alarm, or following a familiar path to a familiar exit instead of taking the nearest exit.

In this research I interviewed ten crowd safety experts about their experiences with human behaviours during evacuations. My research aim was to find out:

  • Which dangerous behaviours do people perform during emergency evacuation?
  • What are possible communication solutions for these behaviours?

Evacuation interviews

I conducted open interviews with: four police officers, two event safety experts, two firefighters/building evacuations specialists, and one aeroplane safety expert. The aim of the interviews was to elicit experiences rather than to test knowledge.

Questions included:

  • Which dangerous behaviours have you experienced during evacuations and/or which ones are you trained for?
  • Can you think of solutions to prevent these behaviours?
  • I have a list of behaviours that I have observed in videos. Can you tell me anything about these behaviours? For example what you have experienced, what you are trained for or how you think these could be prevented?

Results: human evacuation behaviours

The five behaviours that the crowd safety experts have experienced the most are people:

  • Having a delayed response
  • Not taking the nearest exit
  • Running
  • Filming the incident (eg on their phone)
  • Collecting belongings before evacuating.

Below you can read comments made by the crowd safety experts on these behaviours and their proposed solutions. These examples refer to different scenarios, including aeroplane evacuations, evacuations due to weather emergencies, evacuations at outdoor events, building evacuations etc.

1. Delayed responses – comments from the experts

  •  “[A delayed response] happens in our building evacuations because of apathy or fatigue to the test alarm. People first finish their work, take their time before evacuating.”
  • “[A delayed response] does not really happen in aeroplane evacuation because there is so much going on, alarms going off, staff members shouting instructions.”
  •  “[A delayed response] Happened because the tone of voice in the communication instructing people to evacuate due to bad weather was too calm and friendly”
  • “We can have confused persons that do not understand what to do when the alarm sounds. An elderly person might think ‘I hear the alarm, I see a closed door, that is the door I should go through’ not understanding the danger is behind that door.”
  • “We can have stubborn employees that underestimate the risk and can even tell the colleague in charge of the evacuation that it is not dangerous.”
  • “People in the hospital can become agitated, irritated and frustrated when they need to evacuate the building. They might have waited two months or longer for an appointment, so they do not like to miss their appointment.”
  • “When a person is on a 999 call it is difficult to have to make the decision to terminate the call. Even though procedure is to terminate the call, it is not always possible to hand it over and persons can have their own interpretation of procedures.” (In other words, it can be hard for the person calling 999 to put the phone down on the emergency services and evacuate.)
  • “When people do not see, smell or feel a sign of danger, their response is slow or delayed.”
  • “Event visitors were waiting for instructions.”
  •  “The speed and agility of our building evacuations depends on the different personalities and teams in our building. A young member of staff might act differently from a person that is already 30 years in service and has done the evacuation drill more than 300 times by then.”

Possible solutions preventing delayed response?

For individuals:

  • Be prepared when you stay over in a hotel. Always have your car keys, telephone, glasses and clothes next to you. When the alarm goes off you can immediately put your clothes on and take your important items and leave.
  • When you arrive somewhere new, count the number of doors to the exit. In the event of an emergency, if the visibility is low, you can count the number of doors to the exit by feeling them.

For those in charge of leading evacuations

  • We have to make sure there are fewer false alarms and we are spare with giving maximum risk alarms (such as code amber or red for the weather). Whenever people experience a false alarm a few times, they seem to not believe the alarm anymore.
  • Make sure your tone of voice and gestures are compelling and urgent when communicating evacuation instructions
  • When the alarm is genuine, team leaders tend to show more urgent behaviours to evacuate. With practice, this might be possible during tests as well.
  • Communicate evacuation procedures to your event visitors when they are arriving and are more likely to be focussed. Tell them where the exits are and what to do in case of an emergency
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Particularly when a person is under the influence of substances such as alcohol or perhaps drugs, you need to repeat the instructions many times before they follow them.

2. Not taking the nearest exit, but the familiar route - comments from the experts

  • “People have a goal where they need to be. They might want to go to their car in the car park or need to be at an appointment in a certain building. This can make them more inclined to take the familiar route out instead of taking the nearest exit.”
  • “I have seen people not evacuating through all available exits at the Manchester Attack. Just like research tells us, the majority take the route where they entered the building.”
  • “People follow each other. If the first person leaves in a certain direction, the others will follow that person. If you don’t direct the first person in the right direction, you might have a whole stream of people going in the wrong direction.”
  • “Even when you have signage at an outdoor event, people might not see it. Signs might be too low or too small or don’t indicate where the exit leads to (eg parking garage, camping, train station).

Possible solutions leading to taking the nearest exit?

  • Signs at events should say where they lead to. eg when visiting an outdoor event, people may want to know where the camping or parking site is. Without these, people may be more inclined to take the familiar route.
  • Use technology, like the signs projected on to the floor in IKEA that, in case of emergency, change their direction to the nearest exit.
  • Do not use pre-recorded messages to give information as it may lead to questions, such as “where is the nearest fire-safe door or compartment in this building?”
  • Somebody has to take leadership and tell others which exit to take.
  • You need people with authority to guide others to the nearest exits. They should be recognizable eg wearing a hi-vis vest or arm-band.
  • People don’t look at maps. You need to get their attention with announcements, video screens, stewards or staff members showing them where to go.
  • At outdoor events, have large signs that are high up so everybody can see them from afar.

3. Running - comments from the experts

  • “We don’t tend to see people running in most situations. Only when people can see or hear danger.”
  • “I have noticed a lot of people are not fit to run or not wearing the right clothes (eg flipflops, long dress). More injuries happen from running in an incident than the danger/accident itself.”
  • “Running is absolutely not done. When the hospital needs to evacuate, we have many compartments, so behind the next fire safe door, one has another 30 minutes of safety against the fire behind that door. We instruct to walk in a fast pace, but do not run!”
  •  “I can only think of running outside [as a result of the danger] when there is an immediate threat visible, like terror attack.”
  • “In our hospital, the only place where people run is in the intensive care [unit].” I think people there have more stress, therefore they might run.
  • “Running means panic. Prevent the panic, hence prevent running.”
  • “When you are running we are talking about the freeze/fight/flight behaviour. There is a clear danger.”
  • “When people run, they will fall, create congestion, crushing or a block.”
  • “People will run when there is an immediate risk, like an active shooter. The brain has to see the danger to believe the danger. If we don’t see it, we don’t run.”

Possible solutions to prevent running (or not)?

Rather than preventing running, the comments from the crowd-safety experts focussed on assessing whether you need people to stay, walk or run.

  • You might want people to run sometimes, for example when there is an immediate threat to life. You need to understand the risk and threat.
  • Think of your environment eg is it in open space or underground? If you let people run up the escalator, it is likely that somebody will fall, and this can create congestion and the risk of people being trampled.
  • Your ultimate aim is to preserve the life of as many people possible, sometimes you might need to sacrifice lives otherwise more people would die.

4. Filming the incident instead of evacuating

  • “[This is] Very annoying, when people only have an eye for what they want to film, and others cannot walk in front of their camera. The filmers are standing in the way of the emergency services and security.”
  • “[Filming an incident] Is based on sensation.”
  • “From experience, people have filmed the incident happening - for example when a bomb exploded in the underground - but more people were injured from running than filming the event.”
  • “In the UK it is encouraged not to film, but then there are links to upload your videos…” (eg news websites.)
  • “You will always get that. If people feel that they are out of immediate danger, then they will film. It is human behaviour. There are always people that want to look, get close to it. People are inquisitive and everybody has access to cameras with mobile phones.”
  • “In their head they must perceive that they are safe, because they are filming for others to see it, not their own death.”
  • “Many people do not cooperate or have no respect. For example, someone needs to be resuscitated. They just stand by and watch or film it.”

Possible solutions to prevent filming

  • Stopping people from filming incidents does not seem to be preventable.
  • Sometimes moving the crowd will prevent the filming: “At that moment my priority is not to solve the filming, but to get the crowd calm and safe. Then there will also be no more filming.”

5. Collecting items before evacuating - comments from the experts

  • “Yes [people stopping to collect their items] happens every time. I knock on the door to instruct the person to leave the premises because the building might collapse (eg car drove into building or WWII device was found). Depending on the risk I give them either two minutes to collect their important belongings or they have to leave immediately. There is no protocol that tells you how long you can give the person.”
  • “In our hospital evacuations we say specifically take your coat and car keys with you. This is because we evacuate large departments and it can take a while before entering the building again after the evacuation. From experience we know people want to return to pick up their keys to go home, so we now prevent this by specifically instructing to take your coat and keys”.

Possible solutions preventing collecting items before evacuating

  • “At an event or in certain buildings you can close the cloakroom and arrange that visitors can pick up their items when it is safe.” 
  • “In the aeroplane safety briefing we now say ‘in case of an evacuation leave your belongings behind’. We update this briefing regularly based on the latest experiences or research findings.”  
  • “In aeroplane safety there is still an ongoing discussion if the overhead luggage bins should be automatically locked in case of an emergency landing or not.”

Other important remarks and general solutions from the interview

In the interviews, I also found out other important things about evacuations. These I have summarised separately below.

  1. Stress. There is more stress in a real-world evacuation than in a drill. The solution is to practise a lot! You need to strike the right balance however so that people don’t get “drill fatigue”.
  2. Planning vs operational. You will always have to improvise in real life, no matter how well you have planned for multiple evacuation scenarios. It still helps to prepare though, so review in advance what you are communicating and at what time.
  3. Theory and practice differ. Especially in the Netherlands, best practices are used based on experience.  Not a lot of knowledge about human evacuation behaviours or scientific results have made its way yet to practitioners. For example, there are wrong assumptions that people panic or will automatically run to the exits in case of an emergency. More education is needed. Moreover, plans seem to focus a lot on full evacuations, forgetting partial evacuations, invacutions (getting people inside) and stay-put scenarios (when people should actually go inside a building or stay at their location.)
  4. Drill vs real-world evacuation. Based on experience, people take more time to decide to evacuate or not in a real-world evacuation than in a drill. In a drill they might know the aim of the drill - or think they know it - and make a decision quickly. In real life, it is tougher to make a decision, especially in a situation like in a hospital where there are a lot of departments and people affected by an evacuation (eg operating rooms, people in beds or wheelchairs, people on dialysis, etc.)
  5. There is no one guideline for all. Every building, population, situation requires a customized solution.
  6. Signage and wide entries. Have a very wide entrance, through which everybody could leave, including people in wheelchairs. Make sure visitors can orient themselves quickly at your event or in your building. Think of a building where the ground floor is not zero, eg you enter a building on the second floor but there are no signs. Or think of entering an event site and having no idea where the bar, parking, camping, exits, and restrooms are.  Make the people flow smoothly through the site or building. Also make sure communications extend into in every location of the building or event site.
  7. Share your experiences. Share your near-misses and experiences with others. Share and learn from each other in the field.
  8. Training. It is important to learn how to communicate to a crowd, both what the content of your message is, but also your tone of voice and gestures. Repeat training, for example once a month for a building with high attrition rate. Also keep in mind the effect of the training can take a few years before it will show an effect.
  9. Technology. LED lighting could be a cheap and simple solution to create better navigation in or outside buildings. 
  10. Living document. Evacuation policy has to be a living document. Review it regularly.  Events will always happen that you never foresaw and there are always new developments in the world.

Reflections and recommendations

I have learned a lot from these interviews, mainly that there is a large gap between theory and practice. It is important for a researcher to be in touch with practitioners. This will help ensure the research does not stay theoretical, but can also be applied in practice.

The responses from the interviews have also given me so many examples of what can happen in the real world. It has helped me realise how different evacuation situations can be and although there are some general rules everyone can follow, evacuation plans also need to be tailored to the specific incident and location. I think it is really important for academics and practitioners to work together, but also for other practitioners to hear from other crowd-safety experts in different fields. There is a lot to be learnt from each other’s experiences. Together we can improve evacuations and enhance each other’s safety.

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