Human Influences in Emergency Situations


Health and Safety Consultant at EazySAFE

In my working life, I have lost count of the number of flights I have taken to get to where I was required to go for work; from short one-hour inter-city hops to flights from Europe to Australia, India, West Africa and many other far-flung places. Although plane crashes or other types of aircraft emergency situations are rare, I always review the flight safety card on a plane, especially the information on where exits are relative to me and how the handles work on the doors. It literally takes a few seconds just to make that mental note; the handle goes clockwise or anti-clockwise, the door opens out to the right or the left, the chute is activated by the toggle here or there… but have you ever noticed the number of people who talk, read and otherwise ignore the flight attendant during these safety briefings? Many people who fly have become so complacent of their own and others safety and the idea that ‘it will never happen to me’ has become firmly embedded in their heads. They don’t really understand the dangers of our inherent human bias to behaving in a normal way in emergency situations so the safety briefing is to an extent pointless.

Emergency situation on aircraft
Hotel Emergency Exits

“We may never need to respond in an emergency situation but you may only have to get things wrong one time, to delay an evacuation or ignore a warning to pay a price for that.”

Exit door of an aircraft

Let’s briefly go back to September 2015 and travel to Las Vegas where British Airways flight BA2276 was getting ready to depart for London Gatwick when there was a catastrophic engine fire as they prepared to depart and the plane was evacuated using the exit slides. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries and all 159 passengers and 13 crew were evacuated safely, but the abiding image of that accident to me were the photographs of holidaymakers walking away from the aircraft posted on social media with their hand baggage!

Imagine that, an emergency evacuation is taking place because of an engine fire and various people onboard were rummaging around in the overhead locker for their duty-free and hand luggage. The flight was only about half full but imagine a packed flight under those circumstances…

I also had a strange experience at a remote hotel in Ireland many years ago. The fire alarm went off in the middle of the night, so my wife and I got up, got dressed and went outside to the reception area and out the front door to relative safety. After the alarm had been going for some minutes, I looked up at the old 3 storey manor house to see people looking down at us from their rooms with the alarm still ringing. Of course, it was a false alarm and they didn’t know that when it was set off, but they still behaved in that unsafe way in the full knowledge of what a fire alarm could actually mean. On that day, I was mystified by the seemingly incongruous actions of those other guests that night who could have potentially put their own lives at risk but would also have endangered the lives of the fire brigade in the event of a real fire if they had become trapped and needed to be rescued. So why is it that people behave in that manner during evolving emergency situations? It is an interesting question that feeds into emergency training and drills and the efforts we go to to get predictable and anticipated behaviors during emergencies.

Consider human behaviour in emergency situations

How humans behave in emergency scenarios is a significant area of research which touches upon many different but related elements; principally human psychology but also affected by our surroundings, such as ergonomics, building layout, structural design and specification, safety signage and emergency information, training and drills. For newer buildings, when we are in shopping centres, football stadiums, in the cinema or in an office, a lot of work has already gone into the design and layout of the structure we are in to help us safely exit should a fire or other emergency occur, but it is the way people tend to behave in stressful and unnatural situations that is often the complicating factor in responding to an emergency.

Here are some general rule of thumb pointers regarding the behaviours of people in emergency situations that should be taken into consideration when developing emergency drill scenarios and emergency training, especially in complex workplaces:


  • People tend to adopt a group mentality in an emergency and will often behave in a group or herding way and may also go along with bad decisions as part of a group even if they disagree.
  • In situations where instructions or orders are expected from other people, we may not react independently but continue to wait and delay until those instructions are forthcoming.
  • The leaders we have in our everyday workplaces may not be the leaders who come out of emergency situations.
  • There is a bias toward normalcy and therefore responding to an emergency is outside of our normal experience. For example;
    • People tend to wait when alarms go off to see if they are real; there is always an expectation of false alarms being much more common in our normal lives than real alarms.
    • We value our personal possessions which we consider to be a part of ourselves in our normal everyday lives (phones, handbags, laptops and so on…) and are drawn to collect them in an emergency as we would do in any other normal situation.
  • Alarms are a single point of information that may not be sufficient to initiate a person or group into the expected emergency response. When smoke, flames, shouts and screams, lights going out or other factors start to confirm that an emergency is really developing, this additional information can initiate normally expected emergency responses.
Fire at an emergency exit in an office block

These points are actually borne out by research conducted into the evacuation of the World Trade Centre in September 2001. It was found that there were three principle factors that influenced why people delayed evacuating their workplace throughout the entire event as that terrible day unfolded in order of significance:


  1. To collect belongings.
  2. To provide verbal instruction to evacuate.
  3. To seek information on the event.

Of course, initially no-one had any idea of what had actually happened and you could be forgiven for thinking that a plane crashing into a building was unimaginable, but nevertheless, even though “Around 80% of evacuees responded within 8 minutes of the impact…, on average each evacuee completed four activities before evacuating…”. In effect, they did not leave immediately but did other things which were not evacuation driven which included “…making phone calls, shutting down computers, securing items, changing footwear, and seeking permission to leave…The number of tasks completed prior to evacuation was significantly correlated with the delay to evacuation…” and “Seeking additional information was found to be one of the best predictors of evacuation initiation delay.” [1]

Developing emergency response strategies

Recognising that these very human reactions actually do occur in the real world may give us some insight into developing emergency response strategies to short-circuit or at least take into consideration these responses. Whilst we may see these non-evacuation activities as really unnecessary in our context, who is to say that any one of us in that situation would not have done some of the same things, had we been unaware of this human trait? Understanding that we too may be vulnerable to these behaviours may at least give us a mental reminder that in an emergency, our safety and our actions to achieve that must be of primary importance. This brings us back to taking notice of the importance of drills and emergency training exercises; we may never need to respond in an emergency situation but you may only have to get things wrong one time, to delay an evacuation or ignore a warning to pay a price for that. Remember the BA flight in Las Vegas and the desire of passengers to collect belongings and the Irish hotel residents thinking the alarm was a false alarm? Perhaps these were not such one-off events after all…

There is just one comment I would like to make in regards to how we react in an emergency and the comments that are made in this article. The scenarios mentioned above for the British Airways aircraft evacuation and for the 9/11 Twin Towers scenario, there were arrangements in place that allowed for the evacuation of people. However, in 2017 we saw the dreadful events in London at the Grenfell Tower block which clearly showed that when the building or structure is severely compromised in its design and construction, people’s reaction in an emergency can be severely hindered regardless of how well prepared we may be as individuals. This was a terrible disaster for all involved.


During an emergency, it is important to:


  • Understand and appreciate how humans react psychologically to emergencies to give some insight into how your own behaviour and the behaviour of the group may be compromised in an emergency.
  • Understand emergency actions required of you when you are at work, on holiday, in aircraft, on cross-channel ferries and so on. It takes seconds when in a hotel to check where your primary and secondary escape routes are and to make a mental note of these.
  • React appropriately to alarms and emergency announcements even if you think it’s a false alarm – by not doing so, you only have to be wrong one time to put yourself and others in danger.
  • Report defects or issues you find in emergency arrangements such as locked emergency exits, missing extinguishers or fire doors that don’t close properly wherever you are.
  • Finally, understand that emergency situations are not normal and therefore you cannot afford to react to them in a normal way.

[1] – NEW989 – Lawson, Glyn (2011) Predicting human behaviour in emergencies. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham., Chapter 2, p13

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