Why More Fire Science Experts Are Studying Human Behavior

When you hear a fire alarm, what do you do? Immediately head to the nearest exit?

If you are like most people, you probably answered yes to that question. After all, no one wants to be caught inside of a burning building, and the universally accepted response to a fire alert system is to evacuate the premises. The problem is, though, that in a typical emergency, most people don’t actually immediately head for the exit. Instead, they spend time gathering information about what’s happening, looking for an exit, or even gathering their belongings. The result, unfortunately, can sometimes be tragic.

After the tragedy of 9/11, one of the largest building evacuation efforts in history, fire science researchers began looking at the events of the day to identify methods of improving emergency response and more effectively designing fire safety plans and equipment to prevent injuries and loss of life. What they found is that most fire protocols are prescriptive in nature; in other words, fire safety is focused more on physical measures such as sprinklers, alarms, and marked exits, than on the psychological aspects of emergency response. In other words, while a sprinkler or fire-resistant construction are effective at controlling flames in the short term to allow for escape, emergency planning and fire response also needs to consider how individuals respond in emergencies and develop plans and protocols accordingly.

Are We Too Focused on Panic?

One assumption about human behavior that’s been proven to be untrue is the idea that when faced with an emergency, humans are likely to panic. This typically means that they will behave irrationally, forgetting what they know about how to respond to an emergency, and ultimately increase the likelihood of injury or death. We’ve had innumerable examples of the effect of “mass panic” in high casualty fire incidents; for example, in the 1944 fire at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, CT, many of the casualties were due not to the fire and smoke, but from being crushed and asphyxiated by the frantic crowd attempting to leave the big top tent.

What researchers have found, though, is that even in situations that ended tragically, when individuals panic, it’s not a “blind panic” in which they act impulsively or without regard to safety. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Psychologists believe that most individuals react rationally in a fire situation, once they understand the nature of the emergency, and the panic that they experience is the natural “flight” response to a threat to their safety. However, because so many people spend time trying to determine the nature of the threat before responding — studies show it takes an average of three minutes for people to begin leaving a building in a fire emergency — that rational behavior takes on increased urgency, potentially leading to problems with the evacuation.

Other Points to Consider

Understanding panic is only the beginning for those in fire sciences jobs when determining the role of human behavior in fire situations.  Some of the other findings that have become clear since 9/11 include:

  • People want to help each other. In emergency situations, most people tend to be altruistic, stopping to help others even when they themselves are in danger. This tendency only increases when individuals know each other.
  • It takes multiple cues to get a response. While many like to use the classic example of someone yelling “fire” in a crowded place, spurring mass panic, the truth is that it often takes more than that to get people to respond. Humans generally do not like to be interrupted when they are doing something, so it often takes a combination of alarms, seeing or smelling smoke, and encouragement from others to spur people to evacuate; as mentioned previously, this can take up to three minutes or longer, which in a serious fire situation can be deadly.
  • People tend to be creatures of habit. Often, individuals are reluctant to use an exit that is different from the door where they came in. They seek familiarity, and will look for a familiar exit even if there is an emergency exit nearby. Choosing an unfamiliar exit can only add to the feeling of fear, and slow down response time.

In summary, many of human behaviors in emergency situations are directly opposite of what is expected, indicating that the prescriptive nature of fire alert and response systems needs reevaluation.

Putting Psychological Knowledge to Work

One way that fire professionals are adding behavioral-based tactics to fire management and safety plans is by incorporating human behavior coursework into fire science degree programs, and adding additional training in human behavior and psychology to ensure that firefighters and leaders can respond appropriately in emergency situations. However, this knowledge is also changing the way that fire and emergency leaders are making recommendations to builders and government agencies in terms of the guidelines and regulations for fire safety.

For example, because so many people do not immediately respond to fire alarms alone, developers are working on vocal alarms, which use a human voice to direct building occupants to evacuate. In addition, in larger buildings with security or fire command centers, trained professionals could monitor to location and intensity of the fire and provide up-to-date information to both firefighters and building occupants, thereby lessening the “need to know” effect that slows down evacuations.

Other tactics fire safety managers recommend include automatic fire and safety doors, which open when the alarm sounds. By immediately opening these exit doors — which could potentially be controlled based on where the fire is located — individuals would immediately know where to go and spend less time looking for an exit or returning to the door through which they entered. Automatic doors could also help disperse crowds among several exits in an emergency, preventing a crush of people all headed for the same exit because they are simply following the crowd.

Finally, insight into human behavior is useful in revising emergency training and evacuation protocols. One reason people often avoid a closer exit is they aren’t sure where it will lead, which only compounds their fear. At least in a familiar stairwell or corridor, they know where they will end up. Showing employees the escape routes during orientation and training can help them become familiar with the routes, and be more willing to use them.

Fire science is no longer simply about understanding the physical process of fires and how to extinguish them. Knowing how people react and behave during an emergency is important for everyone’s safety, and can save lives.

Author: Brittany Gibson

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