Watch out for that last 10%...
February 3, 2015 6:45 PM   Subscribe

How do you survive a disaster?
"In life-threatening situations, around 75% of people are so bewildered by the situation that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. They become mentally paralysed. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives. (The remaining 10% are plain dangerous: they freak out and hinder the survival chances of everyone else.)"
posted by Blue Jello Elf (136 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
William Langewiesche's magnificent "A Sea Story" is an excellent, brutal account of the MS Estonia disaster mentioned in the beginning of this piece --
"Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all. Action paid. Contemplation did not. The mere act of getting dressed was enough to condemn people to death, and although many of those who escaped to the water succumbed to the cold, most of the ultimate winners endured the ordeal completely naked or in their underwear. The survivors all seem to have grasped the nature of this race, the first stage of which involved getting outside to the Deck 7 promenade without delay. There was no God to turn to for mercy. There was no government to provide order. Civilization was ancient history, Europe a faint and faraway place. Inside the ship, as the heel increased, even the most primitive social organization, the human chain, crumbled apart. Love only slowed people down. A pitiless clock was running. The ocean was completely in control."
posted by sallybrown at 6:56 PM on February 3, 2015 [52 favorites]


Fascinating, but I don't know if I agree with the "mental paralysis" explanation for why people fail to evacuate buildings promptly, as some failed to do in the WTC on 9/11. I don't think it's that the situation is a "failure to adapt" to a "new, unfamiliar environment"; I think it's if anything the opposite: it's alarm fatigue.

How many fire drills does the average person sit through, for each time that they'll be in an actual fire? I suspect hundreds, maybe thousands on average if you look at it across the population.

And if you have a fire drill the requisite once a year, and nobody really does anything to force people to act like it's the real deal... you establish a pattern of behavior when that alarm goes off. You shrug, you get a little annoyed, maybe you wander back to your desk and see if the alarm goes off within a minute or so, get your coat, car keys, computer, etc., and then if the stupid thing is still going off, maybe you start to wander towards the exit, assuming that's what everyone else is doing too—don't want to be the one everyone laughs at for moving too quickly!—and that becomes the normal pattern.

I'm a big believer in making drills just slightly different from the real thing as a way to prevent this, because I don't think it's reasonable—for something like fire alarms, anyway—to actually get people to rehearse during the drill as though it's the real thing. You are just not going to get office workers, who statistically have a very low chance of dying in a fire, to go rushing out the door at full speed in response to the fire alarm when it is more than likely not necessary. (And even if it's not just a drill, chances are it's something minor.) It only takes a few burned-popcorn-in-the-microwave incidents for everyone in an office to get complacent about the alarm.

The only building I've ever been in that had a system like that was a military facility, where the fire alarm wasn't just a mechanical thing but instead an actual person on a speaker system (it was a Navy facility, so basically the 1MC), and the one time I was there when they had an actual fire, the person on the system made it very clear that it was not a drill, both due to their tone of voice and because they literally said "this is not a drill". Pretty effective.

Rather than trying to get people to change their behavior in response to alarm systems, I think we'd do better to modify the alarm systems in response to people's demonstrated behavior. Make the difference between simulated alarms (drills) distinct from real ones, and make the alarm itself reflect the severity of the alarm signal reflect the actual danger.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2015 [62 favorites]


I find this stuff fascinating. I've been reading a book on this topic called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why.
posted by desjardins at 7:08 PM on February 3, 2015 [15 favorites]


The book The Unthinkable addresses this in more detail. It's scary to realize how hard it is to make the mental leap to action when everyone else is waiting for someone to tell you what's going on.
posted by Mchelly at 7:09 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd imagine that with some of these disasters, the problem is people not realizing that they are in an imminent life or death situation.

How many of you have ever been in a hotel or business when the fire alarm went off? Did you immediately leave the building via the emergency exit? Or did you look around for signs of a fire, eventually gathering your possessions before slowly meandering out? I know I've done the latter.
posted by justkevin at 7:11 PM on February 3, 2015 [15 favorites]


My favorite book on the subject is Deep Survival
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:12 PM on February 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


I was in a movie theatre with friends in December, half-way through Interstellar when the fire alarm went off. An announcement came on the PA saying to remain seated and someone would come to get us. After a minute or so when no one came, and everyone else was just sitting there, I led my friends out of the theatre, and other people started to follow.

In the halls the employees were telling everyone to leave the building (thanks for letting us know!). The cinema was part of a small mall and the alarm was going on the PA for the entire mall, but everyone was just going about their shopping even though there was no announcement saying that everything was OK. My friends and I waited outside until the fire trucks came, and then when they didn't tell people to leave or act too worried we figured it was safe to go back inside.

But the whole time the alarm was going I was pissed off that the cinema management, building management, or anyone else really wasn't taking charge and directing people out of the building. In an actual fire there would have been a lot of dead people.

Sadly, the disruption meant we couldn't see the rest of the movie. They did give us free passes to see another one but I would have rather been able to see the movie because with my schedule that was the one time I could have seen it in theatres.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:22 PM on February 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


If you're a weirdo like me, there are plenty of full-length episodes of Seconds from Disaster on YouTube. NatGeo has the "new series" from 2014. It's more technical than psychological but it's still really interesting.

There have been plenty of mefi posts on human stampedes.
posted by desjardins at 7:29 PM on February 3, 2015 [9 favorites]


"So the only reliable way to shortcut this kind of impaired thinking, most survival experts agree, is by preparing for an emergency in advance."

That is it.
posted by ITravelMontana at 7:34 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Alarm fatigue, for sure.

Especially in hotels. How many times have I been sleeping in a hotel and been roused by fire alarms? It's always because someone rented a hotel room for a drunken party rather than for sleeping, and they think it's a hilarious prank. Some dickhead is hoping to see people rush into the hallway naked, but they are not getting their wish from me. If I evacuate at all, I'm putting some clothes on first. And if it's the third fire alarm of the night, I'm getting some earplugs.

Or in the dorms? Pull an alarm and see who everyone on the floor is sleeping with? How about we just freakin' grow up already?

Or at work? Sheesh. There's never a fire at work, it's always something stupid.

If there's no smoke, there's no fire.
posted by elizilla at 7:36 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have been in a natural disaster, and while I was ultimately in no real danger, I can say that only in hindsight. At the time I was terrified, or close to that, and I didn't make the best decisions. Luckily, whatever decisions I made didn't affect me one way or the other, and the disaster played itself out regardless. I was unharmed, but extremely shaken up by it. I had at least minor-to-moderate PTSD (that's my self-diagnosis, anyway), and I lived in a more or less constant state of fear for weeks and months afterward, expecting a repeat of the disaster (which was statistically highly unlikely to occur).

In short, I froze up. I would like to think that I won't do that again if and when I'm in another dire situation, but I don't want to kid myself.
posted by zardoz at 7:37 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sadly, I think having PTSD and other forms of heightened awareness account for many of the people in the 15%. Never being able to relax because of acute anxiety is a hell of a way to live, but it means you're great in an emergency. After all, you're constantly in a state of preparedness. Yes, I have mentally rehearsed all of the ways this could go wrong. Yes, this has come in extremely handy in actual emergencies. It's still something I'm actively working to stop. Being an overachiever in this circumstance is exhausting.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2015 [52 favorites]


I think chalking the numbers up to alarm fatigue is off base and kinda wishful thinking. Neither of the links has much to do with a situation like people are talking about; being woken by a nebulous alarm in a hotel or the like. Situations like the MS Estonia disaster or Titanic or 9/11 aren't situations where people ignore a problem because they don't know there is actually a problem, they are situations where many people are paralyzed or make bad choices despite it being obvious there is a major disaster.

In my experience the OP is correct. Most people are absolutely and completely useless in a crisis, and that's the ones who aren't actually hurting the efforts of those who aren't useless.
posted by Justinian at 7:51 PM on February 3, 2015 [26 favorites]


I don't have to outrun the tsunami, I just have to outrun you?
posted by Sphinx at 7:51 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


And, sadly, if you've ever read about (to pick one example) Air France Flight 447 it turns out that sometimes the people freaking out and actively making the situation worse are some of the people who are supposed to be handling and fixing the crisis, such as the pilot.
posted by Justinian at 7:52 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Haven't read the article yet, but I'm looking forward to reading it tomorrow. My own anecdote is that when that earthquake hit the DC area a while back I was in the fourth (roughly middle) floor of the library on campus. There was a queasy feeling as the floor shifted, and I looked out the window and saw a car moving around in the parking lot. The shelves went back and forth, and some stuff even fell off. I remained pretty much immobile until the alarm came on and someone came in to tell us to evacuate. It made me realize that I'm in that 75%, or at least was that day. Pretty scary stuff, even if the earthquake wound up being a relative non-issue.
posted by codacorolla at 7:54 PM on February 3, 2015


Sadly, I think having PTSD and other forms of heightened awareness account for many of the people in the 15%.

I agree. I also think another factor is being the odd person who lacks the fear of standing out from the crowd, of looking weird. I think that's behind more of the slowness/inaction than maybe the experts are considering. AT the heart of the Smoke-Filled Room study was this idea of distribution of responsibility - "I don't need to do something, someone else will if it's important" - but at the heart of that, I think, is not wanting to be the alarmist weirdo who's maybe making a mistake. Having a certain degree of comfort with already being a weirdo in some ways makes me more likely to move, speak up, etc.

During my years as a camp counselor and outdoor educator, I got lots of emergency training about not just first aid, but how to be and act in emergencies, and over time went through a few minor events and alarms - nothing like in the story, but enough to employ some of those skills we were trained on. As a result I am kind of religious about it. Even though I fly five times a year or more, I always read the card in the seatback because I want to know the exit plan for that plane. I know people are scoffing at me, but let them. This is information I want to have. Same with spotting exits in big and busy places, honing in on abandoned bags, being ready to take charge at an accident scene until a pro arrives, and being hyperaware of things like overcrowding beginning to happen, or scuffles and disturbances breaking out that have the potential to grow. It's hypervigilance, but in a way I think is adaptive.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on February 3, 2015 [46 favorites]


Maybe it's the atypical military and ex-military heavy group I tend to be around, but I had it at four types, about evenly split. First group freezes, second group runs away (pretty effectively, and helps everyone else do that.)

The third group runs toward the problem. Fire? Bringing the nearest extinguisher to their desk. Injury? First aid. Active shooter? Well, maybe that one's not so smart, but it happens anyway. Former submariners tend to be in this group because there is no such thing as running away and no time to wait it out.

Sadly, the fourth group is still the counter-productive hysterical ones and clowns who think they should be in charge in spite of not having any idea what to do.
posted by ctmf at 7:58 PM on February 3, 2015 [22 favorites]


This is terrific news!

Back in '94 when the Northridge earthquake struck, I leapt up from my place on the couch in my girlfriend's little house in South Pasadena, bolted out the backdoor, down the stairs, and stood shivvering in my skivvies in a nice spot in the middle of the backyard where no electrical wires or trees or cute little house could fall on me. Meanwhile, back inside, my girlfriend, and her mother, bedridden with lung cancer and the reason I was there on the couch to begin with -- I made her feel safer, she had told my girlfriend -- rode out the temblor just the two of them in that shaky little house.

At long last! I am not a coward. I am a survivor.
posted by notyou at 7:59 PM on February 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


Maybe we should stop telling people to wait to be told what to do from childhood and then consistently reinforce that in every situation. My understanding of 9/11 was that people were explicitly told to wait. You can't train someone to do something and then throw up your hands in bogglement when they do it.
posted by bleep at 8:00 PM on February 3, 2015 [43 favorites]


Right, bleep, I think the military has that advantage, too. Sometimes all it takes for the frozen ones to get the f*** moving is someone who's not afraid to tell them to. Strangely enough, even the clueless clowns help in this regard. Even if you tell someone to do something stupid, they'll probably figure it out amongst themselves and still do the right thing. But at least the spell is broken and they're moving.
posted by ctmf at 8:03 PM on February 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


The mental paralysis is real. We have an ongoing low-level potential emergency in this house (an indoor cat we are looking after for a bit who wants to explore the great outdoors). In six months, she has gotten out the door four times: once only a couple of feet before being scooped up, and three times now she has led people on a merry chase. Those three times where all when guests were entering or leaving and despite everyone being warned to make sure the cat doesn't get out and told in advance we have to go chase her down lest she get flattened by a car, each time people stand around with slack jaws while one or two of us do their best to corral the nimble cat. Last time it was only by dint of my chasing the cat into a neighbour's courtyard and her being not quite able to leap the five or six feet vertically to ascend the wall that I was able to bring her back.

Obviously this is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but it amazes me how departing guests in coats and boots will stand baffled and unable to react while I sprint out into the snow in bare feet, jeans and a T-shirt. I reflect on how these same people -- both forewarned and forearmed -- might be in the event of a house fire or during a bystander's heart attack.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:04 PM on February 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


My own personal experience with "this could kill me" emergencies is that:

25% will die sitting around waiting to be told what to do.
50% will passively endanger you by doing something stupid (e.g. blocking exits, running around panicked and planless, pouring water on a grease fire, etc).
25% will actively endanger you (e.g. shove people down trying to get out, taking survival tools from weaker folks, etc).

If you're lucky, there'll be 1-3 people besides you that keep their head and cooperate in a way that improves your chances in the short run.
posted by kjs3 at 8:04 PM on February 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yeah, I'd like to see more discussion of the "...is this a deadly emergency? Really?" uncertainty factor--whether alarm fatigue or whatever. I think that can be a crucial aspect to muddying the waters of decision.

Having said that, I've also seen the strange, dull reaction to a clear emergency happen in person. There was a surprise earthquake while I was at work in a federal government building, in a region not known for earthquakes. So we didn't know what had happened, could've been a bomb, etc., and in any case it was very clear that something had happened. Alarms went off, definitely time to evacuate.

But the two researchers I had in the room were very hard to get moving. Even to get them up out of their chairs. They kept their viewing machines running, and seemed to want to stay there, in the midst of the shrieking sirens. I had to stand there and tell them, "We have to leave the building now. Now. No, RIGHT NOW." Eventually, I had to lean in, snap off the machines myself (thus getting into their personal space), and say in an angry voice, "GET UP AND LEAVE THIS BUILDING WITH ME RIGHT NOW!" I actually felt a little bad about this afterward, as if I had been rude, but then I remembered that flight attendants are trained to shout at their passengers in an emergency, I assume for some of the same reasons.

I've read a lot about the conclusion of this article--mental readiness--and I try to follow the precept, without it being about anxiety or paranoia. Everything I've read, including books people have been recommending in this thread, says that something as simple as rote visualization can be helpful in prepping the subconscious for swift/calm reaction.

Whenever I'm on an airplane, for instance--my dad was an airline pilot, I've flown hundreds of times, since I was a tiny baby in arms. But I listen to the entire safety briefing. I imagine myself pulling down the oxygen mask and putting it on. I actually look for the closest exit to me, and count the rows to get there. When I'm in an exit row, I examine the door mechanism and read the instructions on the card--is this the kind where you lift the plastic cover over the handle? Is it the kind where you're supposed to throw the hatch out through the opening, or prop it on the armrests of the seat row?

And it's not because I'm afraid. I have no fear of flying, and a lifetime of it has accustomed me to even heavy turbulence. I don't brood over it. It's just a series of prep thoughts/observations I go through, and then I read my book and drink my soda and have uncomfortable leg cramps like everyone else. But if anything goes wrong that can be helped by a swift exit, I've done what I can to give my lizard brain a jumpstart in that direction. And when I'm in the exit row, no one is going to have to push past me to get the door open. I'm not going to be that person yanking futilely on their seat armrest, thinking it's the door handle. It doesn't guarantee survival, but it can't hurt.
posted by theatro at 8:07 PM on February 3, 2015 [26 favorites]


sometimes all it takes for the frozen ones to get the f*** moving is someone who's not afraid to tell them to.

aka Command Presence.
posted by Miko at 8:12 PM on February 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


Miko:
but at the heart of that, I think, is not wanting to be the alarmist weirdo who's maybe making a mistake.

That rings a bell--doesn't it have a name? I mean, besides distribution of responsibility?

I've seen this happen too, actually, on a small scale. I was in a Metro train car where, when we pulled into a station with the platform on the left, the left doors didn't open. So people all lined up in front of the train doors couldn't get out. But no one did anything, they just realized it and then stood there, jammed in front of the closed doors, as the train rolled along to another station, and another.

So I eventually went to the button that calls the driver, and pushed it, and talked to him and explained what was happening, etc. And I think one of the reasons I felt okay being That Weirdo, using the button labeled all bright red EMERGENCY etc., is because I had already used it once before, maybe a year ago, to report a different malfunction. So I had already broken that barrier of drawing attention/doing the thing, and the second time was easier. Even though everybody stared at me.
posted by theatro at 8:16 PM on February 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm apparently in the 15%. I have never stuck around once a fire alarm starts. I hear the alarm and my legs send me outside regardless of the behavior of others.

I distinctly remember one time when an alarm went off and I was outside standing around for a full minute before I saw anyone else leave the building. I even got teased for it when other people got out. They thought it was funny how I had just bolted for the door (I speed walked.). I was completely baffled that they didn't seem to believe that a fire alarm was supposed to signal that there might actually be a fire and it might actually be a good idea for you to leave the building. FWIW, in this situation there actually was a fire, but it was a localized one that didn't spread.

I did get one thing out of that particular experience though. It made me certain that I would never die in a fire in that building. I'd always be able to get out before the stairs clogged.
posted by HappyEngineer at 8:21 PM on February 3, 2015 [10 favorites]


I've always figured I'm first one dead when the apocalypse, shooters, etc. come for me.

This reminds me of taking self-defense classes. You get a whopping two days of RAD on a weekend and that's it. Supposedly the women's program here was going to start a self-defense club so we could practice without losing our reflexes and actually being able to get in gear when a guy comes to rape and kill us. However, they... never did get their shit together about it. Which is a shame because it's not like I can practice punching and kicking anywhere else short of cardio kickboxing class (not the same) and maybe taking up martial arts, which I don't really have that much time to take up.

"And if you have a fire drill the requisite once a year, and nobody really does anything to force people to act like it's the real deal... you establish a pattern of behavior when that alarm goes off. You shrug, you get a little annoyed, maybe you wander back to your desk and see if the alarm goes off within a minute or so, get your coat, car keys, computer, etc., and then if the stupid thing is still going off, maybe you start to wander towards the exit, assuming that's what everyone else is doing too—don't want to be the one everyone laughs at for moving too quickly!—and that becomes the normal pattern."


This is a very good point. Nobody ever hears an alarm and thinks "OMG FIRE GOTTA LEAVE," they think, "Oh, it's another fucking drill" and take their sweet time. People think I'm weird for grabbing all of my stuff before I leave, just in case, even though we have certain office stories of people being locked out without keys. Nobody ever hears a car alarm and thinks "Oh no, someone's stealing that car!," they think "Oh, someone just accidentally set off their car alarm AGAIN." (Seriously, car alarms: useless invention.) Practice drills aren't very....drill-y.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:21 PM on February 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


the person on the system made it very clear that it was not a drill, both due to their tone of voice and because they literally said "this is not a drill". Pretty effective.

Where I work now, we do the opposite. If it's a drill, someone will say on the PA "this is a drill," then the alarm sounds. Every related phone call or announcement begins and ends with "this is a drill." That way when the real thing happens, nobody has to remember to say it's not a drill.

I can see the argument for doing it the other way, though. We've actually had fires reported where someone said "this is a drill" just out of habit. Usually there is more than one report, though. Plus, in the military, when we did a drill we did a drill. If they didn't want me to spray the electrical panel with a fire extinguisher for real, they better have a drill controller there to stop me. We routinely got chewed out for "self-simulation" i.e., well, I would call the base fire department... (Oh you would? Fucking do it then! they're playing too) It's not like that with a bunch of civilians.
posted by ctmf at 8:21 PM on February 3, 2015 [12 favorites]


I spent some time training young officers in the Australian Army and there are, unsurprisingly, people who just freeze when the stress levels get to a certain point. Officers have to have the above-mentioned command presence, especially in stressful situations, and they have to be able to make decisions, even if they are not optimal or there are no good decisions left to make.

Even with all of the entry-level filtering and training, if people are under stress for long enough or particularly tired, then their ability to do anything becomes severely impaired. If you're familiar with cognitive load models, then you can understand how people end up being over-whelmed by what is going on - the Air Force call it helmet fire - and you start to slip further and further into an incapacitated position. Familiarity and expertise simplify complex situations and allow you to handle difficult things more easily. But there's always a limit, even for the most experienced people. Sadly, ethical judgment is one of the things to be shut down by the brain when workload is held at a high level for long enough.

But, of course, the Army does practice run after practice run of all of the most important drills so that, when push comes to shove, action is nearly instinctual.

But actual decision making, making and acting on decisions before too many of them pile up, becomes the most important thing that any of the leadership group can be doing. This is pretty much true of any survival situation, as noted.

I've had the chance to see what I do in what were pretty stressful situations and the most interesting thing about it was how alien it all felt. There were times when I was acting but I felt totally disconnected from what was going on. After the fact, all of that stuff came back and had to be dealt with but it was held at bay while the situation was ongoing. Even if you're acting, there's no guarantee that you're quite the same person as when it's not a survival situation.

I'm very happy to be living a low stress life these days where my greatest concern is whether I've charged my phone enough to read Facebook. But I still prepare when I think there's danger. I check my exits on planes. I rehearse my driving routines before I drive in the US because I'm switching road sides. I get out of the building when the alarm sounds.
posted by nfalkner at 8:23 PM on February 3, 2015 [18 favorites]


(We also had people going around telling people they were too slow so they're dead now, tagging them as dead so they couldn't play in the drill anymore. It was very embarrassing. I don't even have to ask to know that's probably not cool with HR to start telling civilians they would have died because they're stupid.)
posted by ctmf at 8:24 PM on February 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


It was just Friday night I was staying at a hotel in Mesquite NV when the fire alarm went off. My first thought was to get the shrieking thing to shut up and I went to town on it and removed the battery. It didn't stop. Then I started looking for my earplugs, and only after that did it occur to me there might actually be a fire. Definitely some response time lost.

Of course, there was no fire.

Like a lot of other first-world denizens I have very little experience in emergencies -- some scares that turned out to be only minor misadventures during a little wilderness adventuring and travel have given me a *tiny* bit of a feel for a situation that is starting to go south fast and needs present action, but I don't doubt I could completely miss that moment in any future situation, buried underneath an easygoing assessment that life always seems to go on, bolstered by decades of experience in just that.
posted by weston at 8:27 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Theatro is right, you have to drill and rehearse mentally what to do in an emergency, that way you default to the behaviour that addresses the problem. When working offshore, we drilled every week, yes it was a pain when you were off shift and asleep, but you can be sure that after Piper Alpha, we took it seriously.

There was a minor fire once in a cinema when I lived in Norway, and you can be sure that I had my group up and out the emergency exit while everyone else was still trying to decide what to do. Once someone took action, everyone else followed before the cinema staff had even decided to start clearing the theatre.
posted by arcticseal at 8:27 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


What exactly was the alarm in towers on 9/11? Were people specifically told to evacuate? My experience in high rise buildings in NYC is that one should stay put when the fire alarm goes off unless you are right in the vicinity of the fire. These instructions were printed on the door in my 14th floor apartment. The buildings are supposedly built to keep fires localized and the safest thing to do is to retreat into your own space -- the stairways were not built with the capacity to evacuate the entire building anyway. So maybe the people who didn't go running down the stairs were just acting rationally for New Yorkers....(but again, I don't know what the specific alarm was...)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:27 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was a boy, about 11 years old, at home alone after school, reading Lord of the Rings on my bed. I heard someone calling out, so I looked through the window to see who, just as a waft of smoke went past the window.

Then an odd thing happened. I teleported. I was just suddenly outside. I don't recall moving at all.

This happened again later in life, in 2010. Someone had followed me home, and when I tried to unlock my door they made a snatch for my keys. I moved the person far away from me with my foot, unaware of their companion, who smashed a bottle over my head. Then I teleported. I was suddenly on the opposite side of the door. Again I couldn't tell you how.

Some kind of amnesia, where moving to safety is more important than recording the memory of it. Or acting without conscious thought. I don't know.
posted by adept256 at 8:29 PM on February 3, 2015 [20 favorites]


(Or maybe you can just teleport? Occam's razor and all.)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 8:31 PM on February 3, 2015 [55 favorites]


Not all fire alarm systems are so woefully inefficient. I had a go at being the token fire warden for an office, and the way it worked was there was a two stage alarm, the first stage clearly says that this is a warning to PREPARE to evacuate. It means some alarms have tripped somewhere in the building, and we're investigating, so put on your shoes / grab your wallet if you need to. As a warden we have to get to special telephones set up via which the chief warden can set a repeating message to us updating us on what to do - which exits are safe, etc. When the alarm trips over to stage two it clearly says EMERGENCY: YOU MUST EVACUATE NOW and the wardens herd everyone out the exits, and then stay back and sweep the building with assigned toilets / closets / meeting rooms to check.

We managed to evacuate the full 800 people from a 2 story building in 4 minutes the first time we ran an unscheduled drill with new staff. As a warden even I didn't even know it was a drill. We could have done it in half the time I think.
posted by xdvesper at 8:34 PM on February 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Or at work? Sheesh. There's never a fire at work, it's always something stupid.

If there's no smoke, there's no fire.


Hmmm.... that must be nice.
posted by pompomtom at 8:38 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


The nice thing about rehearsing drills in spite of alarm fatigue is that it lets you get familiar enough with the actions to be able to abstract them in groups. When I start getting adrenaline attention span and cognitive overload, "isolate the area" is a lot easier to remember and keep on a mental checklist than all the individual actions that comprise that.

It also streamlines communications if everyone's on the same practiced wavelength. I can offload a big mental weight at once by grabbing my coworker and saying "I need you to isolate the area" instead of, "Ok, so get two, maybe three people, then see over there? I need you to..."

I think that outweighs alarm fatigue by a big margin.
posted by ctmf at 8:38 PM on February 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


That rings a bell--doesn't it have a name? I mean, besides distribution of responsibility?

Bystander effect may be the term you're thinking of.
posted by Miko at 8:40 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


In case of a disaster, one survivor will be a crusty ex-cop, one will be a haberdasher going to Israel to visit his grandkids, one will own a hardware store, one will be a blonde bombshell, two will be plucky kids, one of whom has studied the thickness of ships' hulls.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:43 PM on February 3, 2015 [42 favorites]


Those open carry guys in the Texas legislator's office, they are of the crazed, useless 10 percent. If you look at the percentages I imagine it is a lot like the every day. Shout the obvious and break the paralysis.
posted by Oyéah at 8:43 PM on February 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Those open carry guys in the Texas legislator's office

Anyone that passionate about open-carry laws most likely has hero fantasies where they save the day. Also most likely to be counter-productive and endanger everyone.
posted by adept256 at 8:48 PM on February 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


"This reminds me of taking self-defense classes. You get a whopping two days of RAD on a weekend and that's it."

Our local university recently held a one-day training in self-defense for staff. I fully believe it was a waste of time. I was a trainer* in a system of self-defense / protecting the other person while doing so for 15 years and trained thousands of people. After awhile, I made it a requirement that I would only train the physical techniques to disability staff who were actually using those techniques on a weekly basis. Otherwise they forgot how to do the techniques and either froze trying to remember them or did them very incorrectly and risked or caused injury to themselves or the person they were trying to contain.

When I was a whitewater raft guide we started every safety demonstration by saying, "You could die today." That helped people to recognize that what we were going to show them was serious and useful. Other than having to gather up a few paddles after a flip or person overboard, most people did what we told them.


*Mandt training if anyone knows it. My instructor # was in the 700's.
posted by ITravelMontana at 8:50 PM on February 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


...hijacked planes hit them on 9/11. You’d have thought those who survived the initial impact would have headed for the nearest exit pretty quickly. Most did the opposite: they prevaricated.
posted by clavdivs at 8:50 PM on February 3, 2015


Nthing alarm fatigue, the etiquette/culture in the UK seems especially bad for it. I previously worked in security at a very large city hall; when we had a genuine fire in the building and needed people to evacuate, most bystanders just glanced around at each other and kept their seats. This included a full wedding party with the bride in her gown.

After it became plain that everyone was ignoring the (loud, persistent) instruction to evacuate, we improvised and picked the easiest, riskiest solution. Instead of following the prescribed drill 'to avoid panic', we dashed through the building and began shouting "Fire! There's a fire in the building! Get out!". Broke just about every commandment of standard evac procedure, for obvious reasons- but that got them moving.

Weirdly, despite our amateur dramatics, they didn't flood out in the screaming panicked way that we'd feared that would cause, but in the calm orderly way that we'd asked for before. They even formed queues outside to be let back in afterwards.
posted by The Zeroth Law at 8:57 PM on February 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


Miko:
Bystander effect may be the term you're thinking of.

Thanks! I think it is, although the Wikipedia article is surprisingly scant on the 'drawing attention to self' angle that seems salient here. It's brushed up against early in the article, at least by implication, in the discussion of cultural norms (e.g. the norm against idly staring around at the rest of the group, so the person doesn't notice the smoke as quickly). It's only mentioned explicitly in the discussion of children as bystanders, when they call it "embarrassment association". A quick google seems to indicate that that can refer both to 'fear of embarrassing the person you might try to help', and to 'fear of being embarrassed if you try to help'.

It's the latter I was thinking of in that train car, the idea of breaking the commuter's barrier of self-isolation, pushing the big red Do Not Touch button, talking aloud to the driver with a big group watching and listening.

One is aided in that event by really not giving a shit, but someone who doesn't give a shit can also be in social terms The Weirdo, and there are often a fair amount of norms putting pressure against that.
posted by theatro at 9:00 PM on February 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


I was once motorcycling with two friends, each on a separate bike. I had traded bikes with one of the guys, let him ride my bike. I was the slowest by quite a bit. The other two had probably gotten a half mile ahead of me. As I headed into a corner, a car pulling a trailer passed me going the other way. Then the guy riding my bike passed, going the other way as well. Huh? I went around the corner and my other friend's motorcycle was on its side in the middle of the road, and he was jumping around waving. I pulled over and stopped.

It took me stupidly long to take on board, exactly what had happened. This would be the mental fog they talk about. It's hard to take in something so unexpected and so clearly bad, and make sense of it, and figure out what to do.

The car that hit my friend, was the one that passed me going the other way. They were fleeing the accident they'd just caused. My second friend made a split second decision that might or might not have been the best one, but at least he decided. He took off chasing the runaway car. The friend with the downed bike was yelling for me to call the cops. I remember saying my phone was on my bike, which the other guy was riding. My friend said to go to a house. There were several houses close by and I remember being really confused just trying to pick one. It took a good thirty seconds just to snap out of the fog and choose a house.

(For what it's worth, the driver eventually realized he couldn't escape a pursuer on a motorcycle while pulling a large U-Haul trailer with an elderly minivan on a windy road. Our friend escorted him back, returning before the cop arrived. He was clearly drunk, but I suppose he would also be an example of someone panicking in an emergency and doing a dumb thing. The cop's take on it was, "I've known that boy since he was born and I swear his elevator don't go all the way to the top!" and declined to ticket him or even breathalyze him. No consequences at all, for hitting a motorcycle. The guy who was hit was wearing good safety gear which worked, and wasn't hurt. The damage to the bike was covered by insurance.)
posted by elizilla at 9:03 PM on February 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


dances_with_sneetches, the prospect of one of my fellow survivors being a Sexy Turtleneck-wearing Preacher gives me extra motivation to practice my safety drills.

I hope that doesn't mean I'm Shelley Winters, though! (If I get stuck, Manny, PUSH.)
posted by theatro at 9:05 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]



I've had emergency experiences and can attest just how important emergency training can be and how it works.
Once time I was in a car accident. I was a passenger and we were T-boned on my side. At first I thought I was going to die because my breath was knocked out and I couldn't breathe. Once I realized that I was going to live I checked the driver, then I checked the person in the back. Then I got out of the car and checked the people in the other car. I remember making sure that someone called 911 and then.... well then it gets pretty blurry.
I remember talking to the police and them calling the drivers parents.
I remember talking to the other people and comforting the woman. Eventually we got picked up and went home.
The next day I found out just how much I did. Apparently my friend was going into shock and I looked after that, properly until the ambulance could assess him. He said I kept him calm. The police complimented me on a couple of things that I don't even remember doing. My friends said I was so calm. I just got on with dealing with the situation and kept people from freaking.

I was in some sort of shock myself but even then robot brain knew what to do I guess.

The whole thing weirded me out until it was pointed out that I had had years of emergency and first aid training. The training took over. Almost like a robot. I didn't get emotional until a few hours after I was home and having a warm bath. Out of no where I just started bawling.

Another I was in an area far from emergency services and a house caught on fire. People there started fighting the fire. A couple had to get kids out of the building. There was a first aid trailer that was locked. The men wanted some masks out of the trailer as well as some other supplies. People started freaking out because it was locked. We have to find the person with the key! Where is he? What did I do? Screw this. There was a guy that had run and got a big wrench thing to open another hydrant or something and I said, hold on let me borrow it and I bashed the lock off the door.

Really you would think it would have been obvious that bashing the lock open an option but it wasn't. A couple of people even yelled at me when I did it because hey you don't bash open doors! You get the key! Afterwards some people made a pretty big deal about me doing it because they thought it was amazing. It wasn't. The door had to get open and I got it open. Just the act of not opening it the common normal way just blew a lot of people away. I learned a lot about how people react to things that night.

The majority of people just stood around not knowing what to d and yes a few had to be stopped from doing really stupid things. I don't think is was a coincidence that most of the people that reacted and controlled the situation all had had some sort of emergency training and/or experience.

It really, really does help when things go wrong.
posted by Jalliah at 9:06 PM on February 3, 2015 [18 favorites]


Theatro - the preacher died.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:07 PM on February 3, 2015


But dances_with_sneetches, he was so sexy and turtleneck-wearing up to that point! And his Muscular Christianity turned the whatsis wheel and saved the day for everyone else.
posted by theatro at 9:10 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


We had a booth at a holiday fair for kids, held in a school. The fire alarm went off, and it was widely ignored. We grabbed the cash box and our kids and exited promptly, urging others to exit. Moments later the fire trucks pulled up; there was a kitchen fire. I was pissed that the organizers took no effective action. Everyone was just standing around saying You spose it's just a false alarm? Yeah, you got your kids with ya, just ignore that loud alarm and teach them to do the same.

When my electric stove malfunctioned during breakfast, I had my kid in his boots and me in mine, in seconds, ready to head outside. The firefighters who came to make sure things were ok were pretty amused by us in our boots and jammies. My son was about 6, and having firefighters in the house was the Best Thing Ever.

The recent Wash., DC smoke in the subway event made me wonder what to do when the subway says to stay put. Smoke vs. 3rd rail. Not a pretty thought.
posted by theora55 at 9:11 PM on February 3, 2015


And then there's my mom:
We gotta go. But I want to seee the tornado!!
Look ma, a bear! Mom runs towards bear.
Earthquakes are neat!
Black widows are for picking up and examining more closely!
Ma, there's a forest fire across the street, did you evacuate? No honey, I'm walking the dog. I'm sure they'll put it out soon.

I'm definitely in the Fix Emergency Now 10% and I'm pretty sure it's due to being raised by that lunatic.
posted by fshgrl at 9:14 PM on February 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


theora55:
The recent Wash., DC smoke in the subway event made me wonder what to do when the subway says to stay put. Smoke vs. 3rd rail. Not a pretty thought.

Me too! That's a case of ambiguity that has actually had me brooding, wondering what I might have done. People were being told to stay put--so, would I have obeyed that and sat quietly in the smoke? Or, since they were only, what, 800 feet past the station, max, would I have been able to overcome the bystander effect/embarrassment association and actually break the cover, pull the lever, and get out?

I feel sure I wouldn't have been worried about the third rail, frankly, because of the little walkway along the wall and the short distance to go. I think my barrier would honestly have been more about causing a commotion/breaking the perceived norms and rules. But a few other people did bug out against orders, so possibly I would have Poseidon-Adventured my way onto the tail of their group.
posted by theatro at 9:16 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I reread the definition of prevaricate, I am used to the word defined as telling a lie.
posted by Oyéah at 9:17 PM on February 3, 2015


How many fire drills does the average person sit through, for each time that they'll be in an actual fire? I suspect hundreds, maybe thousands on average if you look at it across the population.

I have Tornado Alarm Fatigue. I'm 49 years old and have waited out a tornado warning in the basement who knows how many times in my midwestern lifetime, without ever having a tornado come near my home. I catch myself doing things like getting online to check if there has really been a sighting and if so where before I head downstairs. One day a year or two ago, the alarms went off. I was the only adult in the house and one or two of my three kids were sleeping. The prospect of waking up cranky children and dragging them to the basement, and listening to them fuss and complain and be bored until the all-clear came felt like more than I could deal with. I thought, "This is how we're all going to die, under our collapsed house because I was willing to play the odds and because I was a tired mom who didn't want to wake the Thank God They're Finally Asleep children."

I can deal really well with one- or two-person emergencies: a small kitchen fire, an injured person, a fender bender, a medical emergency. But I get overwhelmed by noise and chaos. I figure I'd be the person who died still buckled into my seat on the airplane because I couldn't cope with the press of bodies in the aisle trying to get out. The rower mentioned in the article, who just shut down when the boat capsized to wait for whatever happened, good or bad: that felt very familiar to me.

I do read the airplane cards, and look at the evacuation maps on hotel doors, and all of that. Maybe it will do me some good, should the time ever come.
posted by not that girl at 9:31 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


If the story I'm about to repeat is true (and not just some scene from a tv show I can't remember), then you should be very careful about how you practice for an emergency.

The story I heard/read (and I'm relying on someone here to track down the source, because I haven't been able to find it) was about a cop (or security guard / military guy / martial arts aficionado) who wanted to learn how to quickly and effectively take away a gun from a Bad Guy. So he practised for the longest time with a friend and got pretty good at snatching the weapon away.

Weirdly enough, after all that practice, he actually did find himself facing an armed man one day and he quickly and expertly took the gun away from the Bad Guy.

And then he promptly handed it back to the Bad Guy.

Because when he was practising with his friend, the routine was that the friend would wave an empty gun, the guy would take away the weapon, then he would hand the gun back to his friend so they could practice again. So when the real emergency came up, he did every single step he had practised. All of the steps.
posted by maudlin at 9:44 PM on February 3, 2015 [39 favorites]


We do a lot of training (of ourselves and train others). Training exactly like it's the real thing is important. Training often enough that it becomes a habit is equally so. Role-playing and exercises are critical. I've seen a bunch of so-called safety courses done entirely by powerpoint. Utterly useless.

First Aid training intervals are supposedly two or even three years between training. Red Cross recommends two. I, personally, like my staff to do every year, at least to begin with. Got to build those habits, and that takes repetition.

There are folks who keep their heads and those who blank. It seems kind of innate, some react, some freeze. The people who blank can be trained to react when prompted though. They usually just need a bit of a push to get going. Play-acting an event is so important because it gives that physical knowledge of what to do next, how to move and react. Training helps everyone, even those who panic.
posted by bonehead at 10:09 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


A smaller scale example from today; the Metro-North passenger train collision. Sounds like the woman driving the SUV froze when she ended up on the tracks even though it should be pretty obvious that sitting on train tracks when the lights are on and the arms are down is the worst place in the world.
posted by Justinian at 10:10 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


A few years ago I realized I didn't really know what to do in an earthquake, and that was a pretty silly thing for someone who lives in LA, so I signed up for CERT training. Level 1 is about 17 hours of instruction and is a pretty broad overview of earthquake, fire, medical, search & rescue and general emergency training. It doesn't make you any kind of expert, but gives you some basic knowledge. You'll know how to identify and treat someone going into shock, basic firefighting techniques, signs that a building might be unstable after an earthquake, how to read "fire diamond" symbols. Maybe most importantly, it can help you get into the mindset of being prepared for an emergency, and being ready to help others.

I recommend it. It's free, and there are programs all over the United States.

(I'd like to do level 2 & 3 training someday. I keep thinking about how my instructor, from LAFD, told the class that after a big quake we should expect to be on our own for up to a week...)
posted by jjwiseman at 10:34 PM on February 3, 2015 [19 favorites]


preparing for an emergency in advance

I was 9 years old and 20 miles from the epicenter when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I distinctly remember doing everything right, including grabbing my Mom who was freaking out, and moving us to a strong doorway away from big windows. Of course I had been through many earthquake drills at school, and my mom never had.
posted by ryanrs at 10:41 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Still another approach, when you live in a remote, natural disaster-prone region, is to just relax and not think about. There's no way you're going to survive! Might as well take it easy and try to get some good snapshots of the tsunami/volcanic eruption/whatever.
posted by orrnyereg at 10:44 PM on February 3, 2015


I always request a seat change when seated on the emergency row of an aircraft.

You're welcome.
posted by MuChao at 10:50 PM on February 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


orrnyereg: I think you're going for humor there, but I've run into people who actually think that. It took me a while to notice, because we all like to make jokes, but there were people who actually honestly believed that since a big steam line rupture in a submarine was not survivable no matter what we did, that training for it was a pointless feel-good exercise.

Which is kind of true, sort of. I've seen the aftermath of big submarine fires, and yeah, probably nothing they did after the first few minutes made any difference. Yeah, a big steam line rupture would kill us all in seconds. Mt. Rainier erupting would probably make a lot of cities' emergency plans moot. But the little ones are survivable, if you know what to do. There's a range between no-big-deal and certain death where the training could make the difference. And the little ones are a lot more likely than the big ones.

So I try not to joke like that much any more, because I don't want to accidentally encourage anyone to keep thinking that way.
posted by ctmf at 11:00 PM on February 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


There are folks who keep their heads and those who blank. It seems kind of innate, some react, some freeze.

You know, this is an incredibly seductive narrative, especially for those of us who are in the 15% that leap to action. We're just naturally that way! We react rather than freeze! We're great!

But if you've ever had to train a bunch of undisciplined FNGs in a military unit, you learn the truth. Yes, it might start like that. But that's just a slow start for a lot of people. Most people can in fact be trained to run towards the emergency. They just need to be around a lot of other people doing it for a while. They'll get there. Drills are important and should not be dismissed because of nebulous "alarm fatigue."
posted by corb at 11:05 PM on February 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


The levee was breached by the hurricane, and the town was inundated with flood-waters. A pious man became trapped on his property when his yard was flooded, but he refused rescue when the National Guard's 4x6 truck arrived; saying "I believe in the power of Almighty God! The Lord won't abandon me! I am not leaving, I have faith in the Lord."

The waters still rose, and the next day he was forced onto his second-story balcony. An air-boat arrived; but again, he refused any rescue; saying "I believe in the power of Almighty God! The Lord won't abandon me! I am not leaving, I have faith in the Lord."

The waters rose still higher, and the pious man was forced to climb onto the roof of the house. A helicopter arrived. Yet he again refused rescue, saying "The Lord won't abandon me! I am not leaving, I have faith in the Lord."

The waters rose still higher, and alas, the pious man was swept from his rooftop perch, and was drowned.

When he arrived in Heaven, and stood before God weeping, the pious man chastised God; tearfully demanding "Oh God, I had faith in you, yet you have forsaken me. Why did you abandon me, in my moment of peril, and allow me to drown?"

God looks at the pious man with pity, and shakes his head wearily. "Abandon you? I sent you a 4X6, an air-boat, and a freaking helicopter!"
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 11:14 PM on February 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


Nthing alarm fatigue, the etiquette/culture in the UK seems especially bad for it
"Cause a scene" or die in a fire; the eternal British conundrum.
posted by fullerine at 11:22 PM on February 3, 2015 [44 favorites]


Some time ago I was on the 7th floor of a 9 storey building in Wellington during the Seddon Earthquake.

I had already been through many small and not so small aftershocks in Christchurch, and as the window shades bashed against the walls and the lights swung and the liquid in the vessels on my desk sloshed around, I thought to myself: either this building is going to hold up, or I'm fucked. This was a calm and clear thought and although I know very well what serious fear feels like and I felt none at that time. I got under my desk after what seemed like a long time but was probably only a few seconds, but I felt no sense of urgency at all. I think the long exposure to small quakes rendered me unable to take seriously what in hindsight was a much more severe event.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:45 AM on February 4, 2015


As a school administrator, I'm very practiced in evacuating 500 children in under two minutes time. I've done this in drills and real fire situations at least once a month for years.

However, I was recently at a conference in a hotel full of school administrators when the fire alarm went off just as a group of us were entering the elevator. Not only did we stay on the elevator despite the repeated warnings not to, we rode it to the lobby, where we were met by incredulous hotel staff in the process of closing the fire gates to the elevators. We did leave the hotel by the nearest exit at that point, but were amazed at the people just standing around in the lobby as if nothing were happening. We also felt pretty amazed at our own stupidity. Is it the being in charge that gives you the momentum to act? When you're not in charge, you become one of the sheep?
posted by tamitang at 2:21 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


With regard to tornado warnings, I live in an area with several warnings each year. What makes it different here is that this town was hit with a monstrous tornado several decades ago. As a result, it is engrained in the culture of my area to take warnings seriously. My daughter went through several tornado warnings in her college town where most people, even her instructors, didn't even respond and take shelter during a warning. Only she and her hometown friends took any action and they had to explain that where they came from, a tornado warning was serious business.
posted by tamitang at 2:31 AM on February 4, 2015


Regarding British alarm fatigue / bystander effect / not wanting to cause 'a fuss'...

I remember about 18 months ago being on a busy London tube platform during the evening rush hour. An alarm started sounding - a recorded voice repeating 'Please evacuate the station immediately'. Nobody moved, including me, for at least 10 seconds. The alarm continued, and I looked around hoping for some kind of cue from somebody else. After another pause, I decided it was clearly a legitimate alarm, and started making my way to the platform exit. The exit was at the far end of the platform, and to get there I had to walk through a three-deep crowd along its entire length - easily more than 100 people - none of whom had reacted to the alarm at all.

I was stepping onto the escalator before anyone else began to grudgingly react, and that was only because station staff had appeared and started shouting at people. As well as feeling a little freaked out, I remember feeling genuinely, uncharacteristically angry. I think that was partially because I'd wrestled with the same inertia as everyone else ('I just want to get home, I'm sure it's a false alarm, if I can just get on the next train I'll be fine') , and resented that having fought it off, I now felt weird for having done so.

Basically, I don't think I was part of the 15% there, I was just a slightly less committed member of the 75%.

('Evacuate', though - surely that's a word you don't mess around with...?)
posted by MazeNoCentre at 2:33 AM on February 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


> Some time ago I was on the 7th floor of a 9 storey building in Wellington during the Seddon Earthquake.

My favourite anecdote about disaster preparation in the shaky isles is the building of the National Civil Defence Headquarters in the basement of the Beehive (New Zealand Parliament building). Where is that? Oh, just about dead on the red line showing the Wellington Fault.

Dead possibly being the operative term in the event that the big one ever hit Wellington.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 3:16 AM on February 4, 2015


If the threat is not imminent (e.g. a fire alarm where I cannot see the fire) then I just am not interested and I'll do the slow, slouch along, no-rush thing. If there is a "DO X NOW OR YOU DIE" scenario? I have enough experience to know that I will act decisively. Car tyre blowout at high speed? Multiple assailants (possibly armed)? Multiple assailants (definitely armed)? Accidents and injuries? These I have dealt with. I'm not going to pretend that my decisive actions were wise actions but I do know that I didn't freeze.

Some honest self-examination is probably in order regardless. I'm not sure if the Dunning-Kruger effect also covers those self-describing themselves as amongst the 15% able to act in an emergency? Do I just think I'm good at this shit? I am almost certainly self-selecting the times I was good at reacting, so in reality - probably not. The percentages simply are not in my favour and if I think I'm good at this, there's a really high chance I'm probably not.

Hopefully I'll never find out.
posted by longbaugh at 3:48 AM on February 4, 2015


I have been in one extreme situation (a guy driving a car into a crowd of people that I was on the edge of) and I was a 15%-er in that I was really focused on finding and taking a path to shelter, to a place that the vehicle could not go. I had a few seconds to do that. But I wouldn't call myself calm or rational at the time. Actually, it troubled me, after the incident, how completely focused on saving my own ass I was. That's also not very rational, since there was nothing I could do to help anyone else. But, even if there had been, I wouldn't have done it.
posted by thelonius at 4:04 AM on February 4, 2015


I was in the Loma Prieta quake too, midway between the epicenter and the bridge that collapsed. I had line of sight to a grassy field and watched the earth undulate as the shockwaves traveled toward me.


I remember well the sequence of noticing the start of the quake, confusion about what's going on, then the terror that rushed up when I realized that this was Really Fucking Big. There's been a lot of discussion in this thread about fire alarms, and my experience of those over the years is that it kind of gets to the first two of those steps most of the time--confusion about what's going on--thankfully rarely to the Holy Shit stage.

About drills... I remember that several peopel I knew really did take earthquake drill action to heart and got into door frames and the like. One woman I knew who was also from the Midwest kicked into reflex for tornado drill--started running to a building to get into the basement--which is really the opposite of what you want to do during an earthquake.

The people I knew who had the very worst time of if didn't have any such luxury. One woman was shelving books at the library when the stacks tipped over around her and she was trapped, thankfully not seriously injured but scared to death. Another friend was sleeping and the walls of her house started to crack and buckle--she just fled the building.
posted by Sublimity at 4:16 AM on February 4, 2015


My old library director wanted to bring a paintball gun in for an Active Shooter Drill.

The college legal team quickly put the kibosh on that idea.

Still, it would have done something about the kids who tried to ignore the alarms as much as possible.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:27 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Had to pause a few times reading A Sea Story, caught up in imagining what would be, for me, the absolute worst way to die. And then imagining how I would respond in the same situation, and having no idea if I'd be astute enough to make it to Deck 7 when it became clear something was very wrong, or would die screaming hysterically clinging onto a stairwell rail.

Although "alarm fatigue" has like zero application to this story, I do wonder about the phenomenon in general. When alerts for earthquakes and volcanoes hit up this way, people snap to it and take that shit seriously. There hasn't been a death from either one in about 40 years now. I think maybe there's more to this phenomenon than simply growing weary of dealing with alarms. It's a curious thing.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 5:05 AM on February 4, 2015


The one time my apartment building had a fire, I totally ignored it until my neighbors told me to get out - I was in the middle of trying to pry my alarm off the ceiling without damaging it, because it was always going off.

On the other hand, I had someone point a gun at me and scream that they were going to shoot me a few weeks ago, and the only reason why I was able to do anything to mitigate the damage was because of the fairly illogical but utter certainty that he would not shoot. And even then, there was a good amount of data processing going on to separate useful thoughts ('I have items that are valuable to me but not him on me'), from completely useless ones ('calling me a bitch is really uncalled for in this situation').
posted by dinty_moore at 5:29 AM on February 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Security theater and official alarmism do a lot to keep people from acting rationally in an emergency.

For example, the extreme alarmism and official precautions for last month's "Snowpocalypse" hoopdeedoo in the NYC area, which ended up being an average winter snow-storm, is going to KILL people the next time we get a severe snow storm, because it inculcated the message "officials tend to be hysterical and ought to be heard as such."

The entire post 9-11 building and transportation security regime has done the same number on distorting people's perceptions of actual terrorist risk and response. When terrorists roll out to hijack an airplane with improvised smoke bombs made from cooking oil and tequilla, and armed with cleavers and butcher knives, all sourced from the kitchen of the Chili's on the councourse, I don't know that people will react any better.

I do appreciate that fire department in NYC now has standardized that office building and hotel fire and evacuation drills are announced as such in advance. In addition to the training benefit, that's going to save lives someday because people won't hesitate to evacuate when there's a sudden alarm that wasn't a drill.
posted by MattD at 5:38 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I always move as if the fire is there. If it is, I'm out. If it isn't, I'll go grab a coffee.

I've seen fire move as part of a really small scrub fire and it's terrifying. It feels like it's faster but it's only 20 km/h (that's marathon running speed, which means most of you can't out run it). You'd swear it was smart because it gets beside you and ahead of you before you know what's going on. But that's in the scrub, where you can get out in any direction. I hope that I never see a fire in a building because if I see it, I'm probably dead. A modern building only has so many exits. Smoke and fire can block those quickly.

Seriously, if nothing else in this thread makes you do something, please, no matter how often it happens, move when the alarm happens. If you need to see something to prove it to you, it may be far too late.
posted by nfalkner at 5:38 AM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm either in the 10% doing stupid stuff, or in the third section of ctmf's redefined categorisation of people running toward the problem (which might be part of that same group, depending on what you do when you get there).

When I discovered this, it surprised me. I'm lazy. I'm laid back. I'm cowardly. I'm tall, but I'm not big. Without experiencing any kind of real world emergency, I'd have expected myself to be in the "standing around bewildered" category, but forty years of evidence would suggest that my first instinct* always has me running towards an emergency instead of away from it. I've no idea why as I have absolutely no training that would make me of any practical help in an emergency, or that would make me "automatically" go and try to help. In fact, I suspect that by running toward the problem, I'm actually in that 10% of people doing stupid stuff.

*thankfully, I haven't always reacted to the instinct, or have been, as was the case when the bombs went off in London in 2007, prevented from doing so by emergency services people who have actually known what to do.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 6:18 AM on February 4, 2015


...hijacked planes hit them on 9/11. You’d have thought those who survived the initial impact would have headed for the nearest exit pretty quickly. Most did the opposite: they prevaricated.

I saw that too when I first read it through and started a comment mocking it. Then, like Oyeah, I looked the word up and say that some definitions of it are more general than I had thought, including ideas like "behaved evasively." Thinking about that broadly and also trying to account for the fact that there might be a shading difference between UK and US on this term, I decided it might not be an error, just a usage unfamiliar to me.

If the story I'm about to repeat is true (and not just some scene from a tv show I can't remember), then you should be very careful about how you practice for an emergency.

That one's an old urban legend. Another version at this creepy site.

Anyone that passionate about open-carry laws most likely has hero fantasies where they save the day. Also most likely to be counter-productive and endanger everyone.

I have found this to be largely true. I have an acquaintance who is a legitimate "gun nut," and held forth on Facebook and in person about how having a gun changes the "power dynamic" and stuff like that. When this set of videos from ABC's 20/20 came out, demonstrating that it is unrealistic to think that carrying a gun, even if you are well trained, will make it fully possible to defend yourself in a mass shooter situation, he was kind of psychologically unable to take it in. Instead he focused on a thousand technicalities of what they did wrong in training and setting up the experiment - as though the real world would contain no such setup errors. Technical discussions aside, this is someone who does fantasive about having a masterful/hero role in the word and seems to sincerely feel that his weaponry is what gives him the power to possibly be that one day. He often demonstrates a sense of superiority to others who he sees as chumps, sitting ducks, who [as he sees it] rely on people like him for protection.

There are definitely people who overdo it, Dwight-Shrute-style, with emergency prep, and I agree they can not only be irritating but can gum up the works with their insistence on the letter of the practice over the real situation. The story about the shed and the keys reminds me of this. The kind o person I'm thinking of would be really upset about not finding the keys or about the breach of protocol or about "Don't they know theres a SYSTEM for locating the keys!?" and would never stop giving shit about breaking the lock.

I wouldn't call myself calm or rational at the time.

I agree, even though I think of myself as "good in an emergency" I find it a different brain state. It's not as though I'm just completely grounded and following a path of judicious reasoning in my mind. Instead the habit kicks in and I find my brain is triaging what's most important to do at this moment, then next, then next, but I wouldn't call it "rational," I'd call it something more like perceiving and reacting according to a framework. In the end, looking back, it's always a bit of a blur.
posted by Miko at 6:23 AM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I've been outside the St Pancras hotel in my underpants, in March, for a fire alarm. There actually was a fire, but they let us back in after half an hour.

My boss, staying two rooms down, started to give me shit for not getting dressed first, and I told him I'd rather be alive than well-dressed.

That was kinda the end of that job.
posted by notsnot at 6:24 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've no idea why as I have absolutely no training that would make me of any practical help in an emergency, or that would make me "automatically" go and try to help. In fact, I suspect that by running toward the problem, I'm actually in that 10% of people doing stupid stuff.

There are always a cluster of people that run toward and gape. Or that leap in and try to help, but make it worse (like moving someone who might have a back injury - super common). I'm not saying this is actually you, just underscoring your point that some people with "run-toward" instinct don't have anywhere to go from there. One thing they teach you in first-aid/disaster training is, once you have arrived at the situation, to either take control or make sure someone with some knowledge has control, and then use that control to disperse or give instructions to the gapers and gawkers or want-to-be-helpful-but-confused ones. Some of these instructions are essential - "call 911," "flag down a vehicle," "get blankets" - some are busy work to get the bystanders out of everyone's hair. And they have to be given to specific people - like not "somebody get a blanket!!" but "You, in the green, get a blanket" - and they have to be given in a really strong voice so as to overcome that inaction tendency and get through the fog.

I guess one way to handle knowing you have that kind of tendency might be to pursue the training that would make you helpful - even very simple training, like first aid/CPR short class. Then when you run toward you would have something to offer or at least know how to act and what the possible helpful roles in the situation are. Sometimes just keeping other people back is a helpful role.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


*nod* I'm the "leap in to help, then realise you don't know how" guy. Luckily, the few times I've found myself doing it, there have been some knowledgeable people barking good instructions (ranging from "catch that falling child" to "f*** off, you're making it worse!").

On review: you're quite right. I should do that.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 6:31 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've had emergency experiences and can attest just how important emergency training can be and how it works.
Once time I was in a car accident. I was a passenger and we were T-boned on my side. At first I thought I was going to die because my breath was knocked out and I couldn't breathe. Once I realized that I was going to live I checked the driver, then I checked the person in the back. Then I got out of the car and checked the people in the other car.


Just as a bit of future emerg prep - Do not get out of your car in this situation. You have no idea how many people get run over after car accidents because they are dazed and step into the path of another car.

Unless you car is on fire stay put.
posted by srboisvert at 6:34 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


the people in the WTC were told to go back to their desks by the intercom system. also, many people who called 911 from their cell phones or desk phones were told to wait for rescue.

the elevators weren't working in many areas so they only had the stairs.

i watched a bunch of 9/11 documentaries on the anniversary last year as i was in the woods camping when it happened and then refused to watch any footage all this time, so it's rather fresh in my head.

understanding how large those buildings were, how high, really made me understand the disaster a lot better and how freaking important having an emergency plan is.

so many stories from people who survived 9/11 because they did not follow the instructions and just went with their gut, didn't give in to hysterical panic, just kept going down the stairs, calmed down others and got them to go down too. they were scared, of course, but they just kept the rational part of their brain turned on.

i hope i would be one of those, but man i don't really know. even just thinking about those documentaries gives me a bit of an andrenalin flight response now.
posted by sio42 at 6:35 AM on February 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


oh yes - stay in your gaddang car.

there were so many videos of snow accidents the last few months where people get out to try to help someone and then either get it or very very narrowly avoid it as another car comes careening along.

maybe try to get to the side of road if necessary, but go to the closest side, not across the open road. it sucks but yeah.
posted by sio42 at 6:37 AM on February 4, 2015


I think I've gotten much better at reacting with age and after being in first responder roles, but when I was about 18 the basement in my first apartment building (a large Chicago building, probably 50 units) caught fire. I was awoken by sirens, then watched for a good ten or fifteen minutes from my window across the courtyard as firemen kicked down the doors to the basement and several empty apartments.

Why did it take me so long to stand up and get myself out of a burning building? Yeah, no idea. It's good to know that that was my reaction, though, so I can push back against that tendency.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:56 AM on February 4, 2015


One of the reasons I quit my last retail job was that our store narrowly missed being hit by a tornado that smacked our downtown. (All the cars in the lot, including mine, did get pounded to shit by hail though). During the time when all this was going on, it became clear that people would press themselves up against large plate glass windows or run out to their cars during a tornado because people are stupid. I did my best with a few other employees to herd them into safer areas, but was hampered by no training, no protocol, and no goddamn flashlights anywhere when the power went out.

So afterwards, I thought it was obvious that we needed to fix this and approached the new store manager. Who blew me off. Despite the fact that our downtown was hit by a fucking tornado. On top of all the other crap that job was giving me and the shit pay and said manager bringing in his out-of-state girlfriend to fill an assistant manager position instead of promoting from a store full of hardworking people. It was the last straw.

Since then, I've been a designated evacuator in my office when I could, and just generally someone who was alert the rest of the time. At our house, we do prepare to go hide out in the tub during tornado warnings. I have flashlights everywhere. People have made fun of me for it, but I really don't care.

My previous therapist once told me I was a "catastrophizer" and I think this has a lot to do with it. In a crisis/impending crisis, I am compelled to think about what is the worst possible outcome, and what could I do about it. Some things it's nothing, like nuclear war, Yellowstone caldera blows up, etc. Probably better not to survive those, honestly. But fires, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes; I think about these things and try to be as prepared as I can if they seem possible. I stash food in our car for long trips, and water (and flashlights, and in cold weather, blankets.)
posted by emjaybee at 7:03 AM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that the key to helping more people survive in such situations is to find a way to identify which bucket people fall into and then train them appropriately.

You're a 15% girl who just gets the hell out of there and survives? Good for you, here's an instructional video on how to help people in shock on the periphery of a disaster.

You're a 75% guy who just stands there bewildered? OK, no point teaching you how to fight a fire or give CPR, but here's a course designed to get you to snap the hell out of it and follow those 15% girls the hell out of here.

You're a 10%er? Right, you need the works - first response training, the heap - because one way or another you're going to get in there with your sleeves rolled up, so let's try to make you more useful when you do.

You'd save money on training bewildered people how to do stuff they'd never click into gear and actually do, and you'd save lives by reducing the amount of frenetic (pointless, even harmful) activity of mugs like me who'd throw themselves into action.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 7:06 AM on February 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Also recommending The Unthinkable linked earlier by a couple of people. I read it a few years ago and it's pretty comprehensive and describes a few particular incidents at length, such as the WTC on 9/11 and the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky. In both of those cases there were a lot of people who died because they didn't really think they were in danger and they were basically waiting for someone in authority to tell them whether to take the situation seriously and do something. In both cases, and many others, the only difference between a group of people who lived and a group who died is that one group just happened to have someone who stepped forward and said "we all need to get the hell out of here".

The main thing I got from the book and which is basically what this article is about, is that the stereotype of people panicking and running around and getting in each other's way and hurting each other is basically false. There's not that many people who react that way and it's usually not a big contribution factor to fatalities. In contrast, it's extremely common for people to just not really react or do anything to save themselves.

We've had numerous discussions about airline crashes here and in those threads I always mention a (fairly old, 1992) book titled Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation Safety in a Changing World. Pilot error is extremely common -- the most common cause of plane crashes, actually. And the interesting and sad thing is that very often dumb stuff that people do and it overlaps what we're talking about here. Two very common things are a deference to authority and a related passivity, even when it's obvious that the person in authority is crashing the plane, and a poor understanding of the severity of the danger with a concomitant attendance to relatively trivial concerns at the expense of paying attention to what's important and not crashing the plane.

I won't argue that "alarm fatigue" doesn't play a role, but I think that some people above are overestimating how much this is the cause of under-reaction and passivity. The greater cause is the simple fact that people just don't expect to really be in a disaster/emergency and their calculation about how much danger they're in is based upon their personal history -- which tells them that it's unlikely they're really in danger. And of course the additional factor of the passivity of waiting for an authority or someone else or "the group" to decide that, yes, this is actually an emergency.

How often and how alarm drills are done aren't going to affect that very much. What will make a difference (and which made a difference in some offices in 9/11) is how people with authority (even in the sense of being the office fire marshall or the like) are trained to respond and take charge of other people regardless of whether or not they think there's actually an emergency. Institutional roles like this are important and can really make a difference because if you have someone who is supposed to do x, y, and z no matter if it's a drill or an actual fire, then they'll think they ought to do those things even if they and everyone else is thinking that there's probably no danger. And those people will be the ones who say, okay, everybody, we're leaving. And so the people in that office live, while the people in that other office down the hall all die.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:14 AM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


Another thing that one of those books points out is that a lot of the time people get into trouble because the 'normal' thing has suddenly gone from being quite safe to being exactly what you don't want to do. Sitting at your desk is normally very safe ... unless the building is on fire.

I personally think Judo's been very good for my learning to react under pressure; I know some people whose first reaction to a stressful situation is "First, let us all establish that this is NOT MY FAULT. Then, let us establish WHOSE FAULT IT IS (NOT MINE)." And nothing useful comes out in the meantime. Somehow it's very clarifying when a 250 pound man is sitting on your ribcage, slowly making it harder to breathe: I need to get control of my elbow back so I can escape. That's it. Getting really mad at him isn't going to do anything. Telling him how tough I am isn't going to do anything. The only thing I have to do is get my elbow to the mat.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:35 AM on February 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


There's one last element to not reacting to fire drills. I've been in a couple of office situations in which management brands you a malingerer if you bolt to the door. Not good for survival of the employees. Of course, probability-wise that behavior is more likely to squeeze an extra 5 minutes of work out of the employee than to lead to the employee's death. Which does not make it right.
posted by rednikki at 7:37 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I agree about alarm fatigue, but the point of fire drills is to get you familiar with the evacuation process. We have never had a fire in my office, and I don't really see a big concrete and steel building blazing up too quickly, but if there ever is a fire I know where the emergency exit is, I know that there are going to be 8 floors of people going down the stairs and it's going to take a while to get down, I know that when we get to the first floor there's a long corridor to the outside.

If there ever is a fire I'm not going to be scratching my head thinking 'ok, which way do we go?'

I've had some wilderness first aid and leadership training and have done a lot of emergency situation role playing. One of the main things you learn is how to deal with the various types of people. You've got the clown that just wants to run down the trail immediately and call 911, which isn't really going to help anyone, you've got the guy who is annoyed that his trip to the top of the mountain is going to be delayed, you've got the very quiet women who suddenly takes charge because she knows what to do, etc.

I've never experienced a serious emergency, thankfully, but I often wonder how I'd react in one. I guess I hope I never have to find out.
posted by bondcliff at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


No one has yet mentioned the particular 9/11 tragedy of Rick Rescorla (there was also an excellent profile in the New Yorker a few months later). He knew the building and foresaw the risks, but no one would listen to him. It is heartbreaking that we put so much energy and attention into blaming the attackers, and second-guessing the intercom advice, without (as far as I know) acknowledging administrative failures, and doing some soul-searching.
posted by mmiddle at 8:33 AM on February 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


Is it the being in charge that gives you the momentum to act? When you're not in charge, you become one of the sheep?

From my own experience, it depends on whether or not you have the assumption that in a power vacuum, someone must step forward and seize command.

In the Army, which is where most of my experience hails from, that's a Thing. If you're the highest ranked or if you think you might be, you have an obligation to step forward in the absence of a command chain. There's a lot of complicated rules on how you determine who's the highest ranked, but in an emergency, it mostly boils down to, "If no one is telling people what to do, it is your job to step forward and do it."

So I have been in a couple emergencies in civilian life (mostly medical but also Hurricane Sandy, etc) and what I have found is that once you step forward and take charge, people usually let you. But it does need someone to do it, which is why it's important to have that urge to do it.

The down side is that in non-emergency situations, you still have that urge to step forward and take charge if there is no clear leader, which can ruin your social life and workplace dynamics.
posted by corb at 8:44 AM on February 4, 2015 [14 favorites]


Miko: I also think another factor is being the odd person who lacks the fear of standing out from the crowd, of looking weird.
This is stronger than even you and I imagine. There was an accident victim who suffered damage to the bridge between the two halves of his brain. Having a perfect test subject, they put one half of his brain to sleep, and then the other.

"What were you thinking as you went through the windshield?":
One half: "That I was going to die."
The other half: "Embarassed. I knew I'd be on the street, and everyone would know I caused the accident."

We've seen links on the Blue before that discuss how conscious thought is a battle of the fittest between competing, sometimes crazy-sounding thoughts. When the whole world around you turns crazy, and the floor tilts, or the air turns white, or people are suddenly screaming, those crazy thoughts are probably more likely to win.

Like, "Stay put and act natural, while you figure this out."
posted by IAmBroom at 9:18 AM on February 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


dances_with_sneetches: In case of a disaster, one survivor will be a crusty ex-cop, one will be a haberdasher going to Israel to visit his grandkids, one will own a hardware store, one will be a blonde bombshell, two will be plucky kids, one of whom has studied the thickness of ships' hulls.
... who was taken on a tour of the ship by the captain yesterday, and remembers another way out. And his younger brother has a raggedy teddy bear named Mr. Biffers whose eyes used to light up, but now all that happens is steel-cutting lasers beam out, so they never turn it on anymore.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:24 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I personally think Judo's been very good for my learning to react under pressure;

On that note, perhaps an old comment on self-defense is in order:
...The first MAJOR form of self defense in modern times - that one that is MOST important - is defending your self against the most common danger. Heart disease. ANY Martial Art that gets your heart rate up is saving your life. Let's face it most of us will never face a threat more serious than the one coursing through our arteries.

The second form of self defense is mostly involve involuntary situations and under unpredictable conditions against anybody. It is a stronger derivative of combat training. In the most extreme case of this kind of SD, martial arts will not help you.

Self defense is about awareness, aggression, balls, and knowing when to get away. It's about picking up a fucking lamp and smacking somebody over the head with it and knowing where the exit is. Any physical practice that helps train your aggressive responses or conditions you to remain calm or relaxed during confrontation will help in most situations your average person may face...
posted by weston at 10:05 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I remained pretty much immobile until the alarm came on and someone came in to tell us to evacuate. It made me realize that I'm in that 75%, or at least was that day. Pretty scary stuff, even if the earthquake wound up being a relative non-issue.

I'm usually pretty good in an emergency, but earthquakes? Not so much. I've never felt so helpless as in a minor (by earthquake standards) earthquake while I was at work in Japan. It was only 4-point-something but I could see the floor moving. I panicked, turned white as a sheet. It just kept building for what felt like a full minute before it stopped. The whole time I'm thinking, there's nowhere to go right now. Outside is tall buildings on either side of the street, power lines and street lights everywhere overhead. The street itself is just a crust over a train station and various basements, tunnels, and underground infrastructure. The ground itself is the problem here, it's not like I can levitate. So I sat. Sat, unable to commit to any action because none made any kind of sense to me at the time. Just helpless. At least I wasn't alone; only 1 of my adult students thought to open the door to make sure it didn't get stuck, but no one left the room. Everyone stayed put, and while I obviously looked the most scared, I saw it in their eyes too in that minute or so.

At least a bunch of us got to drink beer later at the train station waiting for the trains to come back online and share a laugh. Made it all better. Not sure what I would have done in that big quake a couple years back, probably would have had a heart attack.

Or in the dorms? Pull an alarm and see who everyone on the floor is sleeping with? How about we just freakin' grow up already?

In university? There's 17-year-olds in college. You might need to wait a few years for them to "grow up"
posted by Hoopo at 10:22 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was once the second on the scene of a bad bike crash, the guy was down and unconscious with a broken orbit and a three inch gash down his cheek. Too high in the canyon, so phones wouldn't work, the first runner left me with him to get farther down to call for help. So I guarded him. Every one wanted to lean over him dripping with runner's sweat, I kept them back, telling them help was on the way. One guy wet with sweat and with a runny nose, squats down and reaches for his face. He says," I'm a doctor. I want to check his pupils." I ask,"What kind of doc?" He says," I'm an Optometrist." I say," You are dripping with sweat and your hands are dirty, and your nose is running , he has a good chance of minimal scarring if his wounds are not infected, and the paramedics are on the way, so please back off." When the real paramedics showed up, they were very tough and the unconscious guy was gone, but not before I entered his number on my phone from off his bike mounted water bottle.

I called his wife and told her his state, which was OK really, and he was two minutes from the best trauma place in the state. I met her at the emergency entrance. Since I worked there on that weekend, I saw his recovery, and later there was no visible scar on his face.
posted by Oyéah at 10:36 AM on February 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


what I have found is that once you step forward and take charge, people usually let you.

Yep, if you shout an order at someone 90% of the time they'll do it, even if it's stupid. That's what makes that 15% of people who react poorly so dangerous.

So really, in event of emergency, your first order of business is to get rid of those people. They always want everyone to pay attention to them, and they are a problem. Last time I stopped at a car wreck a nurse planted herself between the car and bystanders because they all wanted to drag the guy out! Because the engine was still running! By his head presumably as that was all we could have possibly reached.

I just turned the engine off and got out my cars fire extinguisher in the vanishingly small event there was a fire we could put it out. I had to get it before the idiots would back off and listen to the nurse. It was in town, the cops were there in minutes, but no let's cripple this guy based on a tv show I once saw.
posted by fshgrl at 10:40 AM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I learned everything that I needed to know about my own reaction to scary shit when the IDF started shooting at my group with rubber bullets and concussion grenades. I turned into a person-shaped puff of smoke and ran so fast that I outpaced everyone else in my group. It was one of the only times in my life where I can say, with all honesty, that I fled from danger.

The experience was so completely terrifying that it made me physically ill for days.

I felt a great deal of shame about it - especially because a close friend of mine stood his ground and actually walked toward the soldiers. An AP photographer eternalized his bravery and the next morning it was on the front page of the Jerusalem Post.

Later, I was talking to another friend, a former Marine sgt and ptsd survivor from the second gulf war. He said something very similar to what was described in the article. "You're not a coward. At worst, you're a libertarian. But you knew enough to take action. If you were my marine it'd be a simple matter of teaching you how to run in the opposite direction."

Anyway - I no longer wonder how I'd act in an emergency. I bolt like a rabbit. So if you see me running, try and keep up.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:59 AM on February 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


Having read the article, it makes me think about another thing that happened recently. I was warming up some croutons in the toaster oven, forgot how long they'd been in there, and they caught on fire. Basically there was a full-fledged fire in the toaster oven, with smoke coming out of the top, and the oven itself (it's a little self contained unit a bit bigger than a loaf of bread) being burning hot. If I'd left it go it very well could've burnt the house down.

I felt myself freeze for a moment, but then my mind started working. I remembered that you can't put water on electronics (thank God), but also realized it wasn't big enough for the fire extinguisher. I had the presence of mind to realize that the fire was contained to the tray, so I used an oven mitt to pull the tray out, doused it in water in the sink, unplug the oven, and start doing damage control.

I feel like most people would be able to handle that, since fire safety in the home is drilled into you from a very young age. That was also an instance where I could clearly see and understand the emergency at hand. If I was on a cruise ship though, or in my anecdote about the earthquake, I have no frame of reference. I also agree that there is a certain amount of alarm fatigue. It's an interesting problem.
posted by codacorolla at 11:24 AM on February 4, 2015


I was in a car accident last winter - a lovely situation with a sheen of black ice on an overpass that resulted in seven totaled cars. I was the first driver to spin out - went into a clockwise spiral, crossed three lanes of traffic without hitting anyone, then collided with a concrete barrier.

I ran a quick check - wiggled fingers and toes, took a deep breath, then grabbed my phone to call 911. The 911 operator, bless her heart, asked me to get out of the car and go look for a mile marker. Uh, no thanks. It's a good thing I stayed in the car, as other cars started spinning out. As the other cars wrecked, people started getting out of cars. I opened the windows on my car and screamed at them to get the hell back in their cars, using some very raw language in both Spanish and English. It worked. No serious injuries.

I wonder how much bad information from emergency responders/911 operators contributes to bad outcomes in emergencies.
posted by terrierhead at 11:43 AM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


After the first time I heard about these disaster responses, I had a dream that I was a civilian teenager who lived on the Death Star. (Apparently, the Empire let the soldiers on the Death Star bring their families).

I was going to teach a programming class to some friends, but I heard some thudding and creaking noises that I thought were unusual. The civilians on the Death Star didn't usually know when we were in combat, because it was so big and resilient.

I told my friends that we should get on an escape shuttle. They tried to negotiate, saying that the Death Star was impregnable and that if something was going on, someone would have told us. They said I should teach the class, and then if I was still worried, they would humor me by getting on a shuttle. But I insisted that we get on the shuttle.

We escaped, and just in time! It turned out this was the Battle of Yavin, and Luke had just dropped those proton torpedoes down the exhaust port. Out the window of the shuttle, we saw the Death Star explode. It meant that the rest of my family was likely dead, but in truth, I was kind of glad to see that thing destroyed. The Death Star should not have existed, in my opinion.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 12:34 PM on February 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


I think this is a relevant quote about this, he is speaking about war and fighting in war-

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn't even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”


― Heraclitus
posted by bartonlong at 12:51 PM on February 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


One night I was staying at a hotel, lying on the bed watching TV, when the alarm went off. It was so loud that, apart from the whole evacuation thing, the noise level would have made it uncomfortable to stay put. A few seconds later, the TV went dead and all the lights in the room went out. I opened the curtains to get some light from outside, pulled on some clothes, grabbed my bag with my house keys, hotel key card, payment cards and ID and made my way out of my room toward the emergency exit.

The lights in the hallways were working. On my way out I saw nobody else heading towards the exit, even though the alarm was still blaring at full blast. I emerged somewhere outside on the street and circled back towards the hotel's entrance. It was pretty late, and apart from the hotel staff the lobby was empty. The staff were on the phone, and I from what I could hear it was clear that they were answering calls from guests phoning from their rooms asking whether the alarm was for real and they should evacuate.

It turned out to be a false alarm, but the whole thing was pretty surreal.
posted by rjs at 1:32 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


The down side is that in non-emergency situations, you still have that urge to step forward and take charge if there is no clear leader, which can ruin your social life and workplace dynamics.

No doubt. It's working out pretty well for me, but I'm a guy so people like it. I don't get called abrasive and pushy.

crossposted to alt.metafilter.hot-button-topics.sexism
posted by ctmf at 1:40 PM on February 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Here in south-east Australia we are very bushfire-prone, and as a result there is much official, community and individual emphasis on having a valid bushfire plan and rehearsing it. This was especially brought home after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1923 which killed 75 people. Only one of the deaths on that day was someone actively defending their defensible property, and they died of a heart attack; the majority of others were either unable to evacuate themselves, or evacuated too late. From this came the "Stay or Go" policy, whereby people were encouraged to either leave early, or stay and defend their property. Up until that time few people had died actively defending a defensible, well-prepared property.

Black Saturday in 2009 killed 173 people. Admittedly the scale, intensity and speed of the fires on that day was unprecedented. About 20% of the people killed were enacting their plan to actively defend. But there were still so many who were unprepared or ignored official warnings which had been going on for a week beforehand. 58% of the fatalities were again people who had not prepared a fire plan at all.

Many survivor accounts talked about how useful their bushfire plan was, when it had to go into action - some people talked about going into automatic mode because they'd rehearsed it. Others had a plan to leave, but hesitated and eventually left too late. In some cases they believed erroneously that they would be directly warned when it was time to go - that the police would knock at their door and tell them to leave. And lots of people did the "milling around" which is described in The Unthinkable (which I also recommend).

In the end one of the most important findings that came out of Black Saturday was that many people, even when they do have a plan, will wait for some kind of official "trigger" before they will put that plan into action: "No matter how thorough preparedness and fire plans, they need to be activated. This requires some sort of trigger, which may be a specific warning, a high level of perceived threat or something else. " (Review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009, bushfires)

The difficulty, I guess, is having the right 'trigger' for the circumstances, one which people will pay attention to and which bears the appropriate level of seriousness and weightiness. In Black Saturday there were official warnings via the media, as well as community meetings, for at least the week leading up to the fires that it was going to be an unprecedented day of danger. Plenty of people who died had been spoken to by anxious friends and relatives but ignored that; some actually mocked the warnings. But short of a direct personal warning by the police - which clearly wasn't going to happen if only because there were just too many people to warn - what would have worked?
posted by andraste at 1:43 PM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I remember one day when I was still living in California and an earthquake started while I was in the tub. I glowered for a moment, tried to gauge the level of the earthquake, and decided to finish my bath. The closest I got to panicking was wondering what it would be like if a naked Samizdata in a tub plunged through the second floor bathroom floor and landed in front of his strict Mormon landlords (who made tenants leave their doors open when a guest of opposite gender was visiting).
posted by Samizdata at 2:08 PM on February 4, 2015


Also, if you want an actual photo of the apparently incomprehensible ways humans can react in the face of disaster, there's the last photo taken inside The Station nightclub, which you can find on this forum. The guy in the photo did not survive. He is standing there, apparently quite calm, with a jacket over his arm, holding a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, while behind him is a complete inferno.
posted by andraste at 2:08 PM on February 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


corb: "So I have been in a couple emergencies in civilian life (mostly medical but also Hurricane Sandy, etc) and what I have found is that once you step forward and take charge, people usually let you. But it does need someone to do it, which is why it's important to have that urge to do it."

This is pretty much literally the first thing they tell you in CPR training, that the biggest risk is dithering and that you must take charge AND give specific instructions. Like, you don't shout, "Someone call 911!" but rather point at someone and shout, "You! Call 911!" (And they also make you practice it LOUD in the class, even though you feel stupid being loud in a fake situation surrounded by other students, because you have to do it LOUD in the emergency, and better you have a little practice feeling silly in class and are willing to feel silly shouting in an emergency than that you worry so much about feeling silly that you do nothing.

(I feel like earthquakes are a special case since it is very hard to make decisions while THE WHOLE OF REALITY IS SHAKING. Fires and tornadoes you can usually at least, worst case, pick a direction to run. In earthquakes even if you have a direction to run, THE GROUND IS MOVING.)

I am a catastrophizer, so I keep a fire extinguisher in my bedroom in case of nighttime fires. Which has never happened, but that's a lot of peace of mind for $30. I sleep a lot better knowing that I know my escape routes (and have a fire ladder by the best one!) and I have a fire extinguisher to hand. I bet I could actually put my hands on my bedroom fire extinguisher faster than my kitchen fire extinguisher, because I worry -- and therefore rehearse -- what will happen if there's a fire while I'm sleeping, but I don't ruminate on it when I'm cooking.

There are so many engineers in this town that like every public body starts its year (July 1) with a safety speech about evacuating the council room/auditorium/whatever in case of fire or tornado, which I used to make fun of my engineer friends for ("Are you a flight attendant? Should place the metal flap inside the buckle, or does the buckle go over and around the metal flap?") but now I sort-of expect safety speeches in large public assemblies and I'm in the habit of checking the exits when I go to a new place.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:09 PM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Over a long time being a first responder at levels from volunteer firefighter to professional paramedic, both on the street and in the hospital, I've realized that the single most valuable skill I've learned from all my training is the ability to pause and think in the middle of chaos.

I accidentally tipped a roll of paper towels onto a still-hot burner on the stove a few months ago, and they went up like a torch with a fairly impressive tower of flame and burst of heat, licking up against the walls and cabinetry and lighting little bits of leftover grease in the fume hood on fire.

Both kids and the wife were out of the kitchen like a shot and onto the back porch, but I stood there, looked at what was happening, thought "I guess I should take care of this", and then took the time to grab a pair of tongs out of the drawer, plug the sink and start running it, and then pick up the flaming bundle of towels with the tongs and dunk it in the partially filled sink.

Then I wiped everything down with Clorox wipes, because there was soot near dinner and things going *sizzt* in the overhead, and we can't eat dinner with that going on.

And then I went back to cooking dinner, because the tomato sauce was going to boil over. When my wife came back in to find out if I was dead or had been eaten by a bear or whatever, I literally said "oh, good, dinner's going to be up in a minute. Can you plate?"

I suspect that many of the people who run towards emergencies have the same thing happen: shelter, evaluate, and then choose to act, all compressed into a very short timeframe, despite the adrenaline dump that happens when something blows up near you or someone breaks their leg or a car accident happens.

For me, it goes something like "okay, I'm not hurt, and the people I'm immediately responsible for aren't hurt, so I guess I should do something about the situation". But it's taken me the better part of 25 years of both regular training and first-hand experience to get that way. It doesn't happen spontaneously, and it often doesn't even happen with training.

In any given disaster, I'm looking for the person who's been through this before, because there's no substitute for experience. By the luck of the draw, I'm pretty often that person, but I'm always looking for the other people who are pausing and evaluating.
posted by scrump at 3:22 PM on February 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


There was a video of the Station fire at the site linked above. It is horrible. But it's a good reminder to look and see where non-main exits are in a club.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:49 PM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hmph, some of this article is sort of dumb:

> You’d have thought those who survived the initial impact [in 9/11] would have headed for the nearest exit pretty quickly. Most did the opposite: they prevaricated.

First, here's what prevaricated actually means.

Second, it was absolutely not clear what had happened, and there were announcements saying not to move. Generally, in a building fire staying put is usually the right option.

When I was in a disaster, a steam pipe explosion that killed three other people, everything seemed in slow motion, and it felt as if I had all the time in the world to think about what to do - even though I was diving to the ground. Before I got down, I'd already figured out that it was a steam pipe, and I'd dragged my girlfriend out of there before 30 seconds elapsed (leaving bruises on her arm, but she didn't complain...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:24 PM on February 4, 2015


Well, I'm part of the 75%. Wish I wasn't, but the two emergencies I was involved in, I had no idea what to do other than call 911 and take orders from the take charge people. At least there were take charge people though; and for that I'm grateful. If there weren't, And if there are not, I suspect I'll sit there dumb struck.

This post did help me understand something though. I was the first person on the scene of a hit and run. I literally stumbled upon it. I don't even remember registering the sound, just seeing a motorcycle on its side and fluid pouring out. Then I heard yelling, but my mind was still on the bike. That's odd, why is it tipped over? But the thought wasn't even that crystallized. I just knew something was wrong and didn't understand what. And when the words, started to register "help, someone help, please?" I still didn't understand why there was a man laying about 20 feet away. I ran towards him but only after looking around and seeing no other people. I do not think I would have had I seen anyone else. And I literally did not know what to do so told him I was calling 911, because I had no idea what to do. Thankfully, even though I was the first person there, a woman followed shortly who knew what to do, and started administering first aid. But I hate that I didn't even try. (The answer was the three people who saw the accident, stopped their cars and even parked, but did not move from their vehicles until the lady was barking orders. I was mad at their inaction for a long time. They saw the accident, I stumbled onto it, so why was I the first person to (poorly) assist? Now I know.)

I think I'm going to look into that cert training. Even if it doesn't nudge me out of the 75%, maybe I can be more useful.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:59 PM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


andraste: That's really interesting about the fire plans not having a trigger, or as I'm used to calling it, a tripwire. Sometimes when we were tracking contacts in a submarine, especially new contacts, the position of the contact is a little fuzzy, and you add information as you figure it out. Maybe you start with a maximum range, because otherwise the contact would have to be moving impossibly fast to match the data we have. Maybe you've got a position, but the direction of travel is ambiguous for the time being. Point is, there's some initial assumptions and guesses made, and then those are refined over time. Meanwhile, we're driving a multi-thousand ton vehicle in the vicinity of another one, and neither can see the other.

For safety, all the control room station operators had certain "tripwires". Some had automatic actions attached, some were just, "everyone stop what you're doing and pay attention to this right now because it could be bad." A couple of mine were "calculated range less than X." I'd shout out (interrupting everyone else) "TRIPWIRE: [what my problem was]!" Depending on which version of X, we might frantically cross check all the different methods to calculate range, or we might take immediate evasive action to avoid collision. Sometimes it was just a fluke of the calculation method in this circumstance, sometimes I had messed it up, and sometimes it was a real problem.

The important thing about those tripwire points were that I had no choice. I couldn't sit around feeling uneasy but not wanting to say anything, and I couldn't brush it off as, ah, well that's probably just [rationalization]. Tripwire condition reached, action required.

Maybe there's something in that concept that would help trigger the bush fire plans. Maybe they could include mandatory evaluation points built in to the plan. Bush fires reported in media, stay or go decision point. If stay, prepare defenses, if go, pack car. Bush fires within X miles, stay or go decision point. If stay, this action. If go, that action.
posted by ctmf at 9:16 PM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


Where do you sit on the fight or flight index? Watch this video.
posted by vicx at 10:02 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hmph, some of this article is sort of dumb:

> You’d have thought those who survived the initial impact [in 9/11] would have headed for the nearest exit pretty quickly. Most did the opposite: they prevaricated.


Im sorry you thought the word choice was dumb. Did you read the rest, do you fully understand the word? You linked the word prevaricate for prevaricated. Big difference.

"Second, it was absolutely not clear what had happened, and there were announcements saying not to move. Generally, in a building fire staying put is usually the right option"

Cite?
posted by clavdivs at 10:26 PM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I did get one thing out of that particular experience though. It made me certain that I would never die in a fire in that building. I'd always be able to get out before the stairs clogged.
posted by HappyEngineer at 0:21 on February 4 [9 favorites +] [!]


Yeah you would see it that way!
posted by Meatbomb at 2:35 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


but there were people who actually honestly believed that since a big steam line rupture in a submarine was not survivable no matter what we did, that training for it was a pointless feel-good exercise.

I appreciate that a submarine is a different environment, and I acknowledge you are more experienced, but airlines talked about water landings for years even though there had never been one, until Sully landed that plane on the Hudson.

I was once in a bad car accident on the highway. I instinctively threw my door open once the car had stopped, even though I didn't know why at the time. Later I realized it was so someone could get to me easily. I also didn't move because I thought I had a broken collarbone. Soon a volunteer fireman jumped in the back of my car and held my head still. And started asking questions. And of course, I, like everyone else, tried to nod in response. "Hold your head still." I'm glad my passenger didn't lose consciousness until he was already there, because that freaked me out and I likely would have jumped out to go tend to her, but he told me she was still breathing and just passed out.

And then there are times you have to stand up for your own safety. My mom and I were out when the weather got bad in a hurry. We were 15 miles from home, no way we'd make it. She pulled up to the nearest store so we could take shelter. The store manager was standing in the doorway. "You might want to go home." We said "there's no way we'll make it, that's why we came here." Immediately behind us a parking lot stop sign weighted with concrete went flying.

Ten seconds later the tornado sirens sounded. They put all the customers and employees in the meat freezer. No really, they said it was the place in the store with the thickest walls. Left the door open. I had an Internet-enabled cellphone and not many people did at that time so I kept checking the weather. After about 20 minutes I said "oh look they've cancelled the tornado warning" and showed the NWS site around. The store manager came in moments later and said they'd let us out but the radio said the warning was still active so they might put us back in on short notice. Everyone looked at me. I didn't say anything. I wasn't going to contradict the guy who was keeping us safe. He might have had more up-to-date info, maybe a second tornado formed, who knows. It certainly wasn't a time to play I'm right and you're wrong. If everyone thought I was an idiot, that was okay by me.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:24 AM on February 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


Tornados are the exception. I will be that 15% who trucks to the safest interior/basement spot. I have a mortal fear of them; they are literally the stuff of nightmares for me, popping up in dreams that wake me in a cold sweat. And I live in Wisconsin, we get them but it's not the major tornado hub some parts of the Midwest are. But tornado watch has me planning how to safely get all the pets downstairs. Tornado warning? I can gather them all up in record time.

There was a tornado warning once with two spotted heading directly towards my neighborhood. I had no way of seeing the horizon but the weather alerts on TV had them tracking a few miles west down the road. I think I had everyone in the basement in 5 minutes, maybe less; and that included the dog kennels because I didn't want them getting stupid and running around, a rabbit and her cage, 4 cats, and a crabby, fully flighted bird that was on the lose and hated to be grabbed. He knew something about my demeanor was different that day, and so we had a party in the basement while I watched the news and the tornados veered harmlessly south into some corn fields.

I also noticed my earlier post focused on someone knowing what to do, and unintentionally repeated it numerous times. Because of my mortal fear of tornados, I've always done some form of storm disaster prep, including, as a kid, having outdoor rabbits and bringing them all in VERY QUICKLY whenever there was a warning, or even a watch with clouds that looked a little dark. Another time I demanded we shut the phone center down at a call center I worked and get every one in the bathrooms. We had no tornado contingency plan, but I sure as fuck knew what to do. The police actually alerted us and others in the industrial park and they still didn't want to shut down. I believe I said, no, we are doing this; and it was the same sort of thing above where there was something in my demeanor that said unquestionably this is different. (For anyone following along, it was the now director who had made my life miserable in the last tale here. We still did not get along, which is probably why he objected in the first place. But a few minutes later, we were all in the bathrooms because apparently I was not to be trifled with that day.) They instituted a formal storm/tornado plan a week later.

So tornados? I'm your gal. Every other situation, I might be a terrible go to person and be the person caught in the fire. But give me the glimmer of a dark cloud and I am doing a mental inventory of the best constructed interior rooms. Which, leaves the question, are the survivors in disaster scenarios really unique in there ability to recognize any dangerous situation and flee, or have they, as others suggested, some sort of mental evacuation plan due to fear or experience?
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:53 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


(I feel like earthquakes are a special case since it is very hard to make decisions while THE WHOLE OF REALITY IS SHAKING. Fires and tornadoes you can usually at least, worst case, pick a direction to run. In earthquakes even if you have a direction to run, THE GROUND IS MOVING.)

In earthquakes move to a corner if you're in a building, and away from everything you can if you're outside of a building. There is a direction, it's just a lot more situationally determined. The only major earthquake I've felt I didn't know what to do; now I know and I even know what part of the house I'll head to in each level (in my office it's easy because the office is half corner).
posted by Deoridhe at 10:57 AM on February 5, 2015


The train-car collision in Westchester on Tuesday was a very, very good example of this.

From today's NY Times:
The gate struck the back passenger side edge of [Ellen] Brody’s vehicle, said Rick Hope, the driver behind her, then slid down farther and came to rest pressing in on the top of a window. Mr. Hope said the vehicle, a Mercedes, appeared to be short of the tracks but inside the gate before the crossing alarm began to blare.

“As soon as I see the gate go down, I back up,” Mr. Hope said outside his Yorktown Heights home on Wednesday. “I say, ‘She’s going to back up as soon as she sees what’s going on.’ ”

But instead, he recounted, Ms. Brody calmly got out of her car. She walked around the back, pushed up against the gate and found it wedged firmly in place.

Mr. Hope said he began to panic, knowing a train would come through in seconds. He said he motioned with his hands at Ms. Brody to come toward him. Knowing his headlights were on, possibly blocking her from seeing him, he backed his car up more, thinking she might follow his lead.

For a split second, he said, she looked at him. He thought she might walk away from the car. Instead she walked back to the driver’s seat and climbed in. There was a pause, he said, as if she were buckling her seatbelt.

“The thing’s dinging, red lights are flashing, it’s going off,” Mr. Hope said. “I just remember going, ‘Hurry up.’ I just knew she was going to back up — never in my wildest dreams did I think she’d go forward.”

She drove forward.

The train operator, Steven Smalls, seeing the obstruction in front of him, applied the emergency brakes, his union representative, Anthony Bottalico, said.

The train slowed, but not quickly enough.

“It was just instantaneous,” Mr. Hope said. “She was gone.”
This was a situation that the driver, as a Westchester resident, should have known to avoid, and theoretically how to extract herself from. But apparently not. Did she panic? Did she not understand how much time she had to act?

But Christ, I can't imagine what it was like for Mr. Hope, to have to witness that, and have to live with it.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:37 PM on February 5, 2015 [11 favorites]


I don't know, when I picture what happened, it seems like she was going to try to beat the gate but it came down and wedged itself against the back of her car. So she probably felt like she would get more escape momentum going forward. How should she have known exactly how to extract her car from a seemingly unmovable-gate? How many times has this happened to anyone? Sure she should not have tried to beat the gate but I can see the decision tree. I'm also guessing she got back in the car because I remember in the train safety stuff we used to do in elementary school that it's really hard to tell how fast the train is coming when you're on the tracks.
I just really don't like all this blame the victim stuff I sense with this "75%" theory. Wow, 75% of us are human beings who don't always make the right decisions unless our lizard brains have been prepped way in advance.

Speaking of which here's that cite. The people in the south tower who couldn't see what was happening in the other tower and didn't see anyone really panicking listened to the instructions to stay put. How were they supposed to know? As for the north tower, even the firefighters had no idea what was going on.

So basically I'm sure there is a conversation to be had about prepping people to make good decisions in emergencies, but this "75% of people are fuckwits and 15% are clowns" is not that conversation. And carefully note that I'm not denying that 75% of people are stupid, I'm just saying that it's not a really useful observation. Everyone is stupid and everyone makes mistakes until you teach them otherwise and even then there are no guarantees.
posted by bleep at 8:26 PM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's a concept in Old English that comes from Old Norse called "wyrd" which, to oversimplify things, kind of boils down to The Force. It's mentioned in Beowulf that

Wyrd often saves
an undoomed hero as long as his courage is good
(lines 572-3)


Wyrd is fascinating and nuanced, and derives from a time so unlike ours, one of complete and utter survival, sadly resurgent in those moments described in the Sea Story article, when the awareness of how perilously fragile human existence is and how alone humanity is was always an undercurrent.

Wyrd has to do with the interplay of courage and skill and presence of mind and zen-like action-without-thinking that emboldens the warrior to launch into dangerous situations and possibly succeed because he has brought every molecule of his presence to the battle. He who can channel wyrd is Heraclitus' one hero that will bring everyone home. And these older civilizations, who dealt in real danger, recognized the uniqueness of these character traits as well as the sometimes perfect ripening of time for these traits to come to bear.

In a way, wyrd is kind of like the fabric of the universe, and with all the right elements in place, a hero can kind of channel the universe to work with him toward victory.

In a less fraught context, wyrd makes me think of "the zone" athletes speak of or studies about how people can get so tuned in to their project that they get caught up in flow and lose track of themselves- not to sound too woo, but it's like your mastery allows you to stand in and outside yourself and manipulate the threads of the universe. I imagine it's similar in concept to Qi as well, something about tapping into a deeper source of energy.

The film, Gravity, for example, got me thinking about wyrd and how once Sandra Bullock's character stopped fighting to survive she gained clarity (and inspiration in the form of mind-ghost Clooney) and was able to focus, stop panicking, access her training and take actual steps toward survival.

Lt colonel Ronald Speirs from the HBO show Band of Brothers, when asked how he survived all his seemingly reckless stunts, like dodging through a battlefield hailing bullets to rescue wounded soldiers replies

"The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it."


And in a way, because Speirs is not thinking of himself as an existing thing to maintain, he's freed to act without thinking of self-preservation, which ultimately contributes to his survival.

Brutal stuff. Wyrd.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:49 PM on February 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


Wyrd is also the larger pattern of the world, of which each of us have orlog - our own personal pattern/fate. We can perhaps effect it, definitely change how we interact with it, but ultimately we are powerless within it.
posted by Deoridhe at 9:59 PM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I can't imagine what it was like for Mr. Hope, to have to witness that, and have to live with it.

Oh god, yeah - because he totally, absolutely could have prevented her death at least if he'd been quicker to react. That is a hell of a thing to live with even when you prepare yourself to live with that. Isolated, that's a killer.
posted by corb at 10:31 PM on February 5, 2015


Everyone is stupid and everyone makes mistakes until you teach them otherwise and even then there are no guarantees.

Yeah, that's a pretty good rule for life: Experience, education and training can actually make a difference and be worthwhile. (Another thing CERT offers that I forgot to mention is the opportunity to participate in large scale disaster simulations.)

It does sadden me to see people in this thread talking about drill fatigue. Drills are your opportunity to practice and prepare, and if you don't see the value in doing that then I don't think that the issue is that there are too many drills.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:57 AM on February 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


(That's a very dad thing of me to say, but I think it's true!)
posted by jjwiseman at 1:27 PM on February 6, 2015


The train-car collision in Westchester on Tuesday was a very, very good example of this.

I have followed this closely because I know one person in the first car and several more in the back of the train and I live in Westchester. I have been through that intersection numerous times. It is a little confusing, but the gates come down and you should always gauge your ability to get across before stopping like any RR Crossing.

I speculate that Mrs. Brody did not know that those gates are designed to break away pretty easily. If she were to back up, she knew she would hit the gate, but I speculate she did not know it would snap off very easily. I have seen it done many times. While Mr. Hope who is a Town Administrator and would likely appreciate that she could back up and gave her a good signal to do so by backing up himself, Mrs. Brody did not seem to get the message.
posted by 724A at 2:23 PM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


It does sadden me to see people in this thread talking about drill fatigue. Drills are your opportunity to practice and prepare, and if you don't see the value in doing that then I don't think that the issue is that there are too many drills.

Drills, if they are conducted well, and realistically, are a fine thing. But if drills are done wrong—in particular, if they train and reinforce the wrong behaviors, the ones that will kill you in a real emergency, as many typical office-type fire drills do—then they are actually worse than useless. Literally: you would be better served without doing them, if they serve to encourage people in an emergency to do things that are worse, e.g. standing at their desks and becoming trapped, than they would do if unprompted and panicked.

The problem is that too many people and organizations lack the resources to conduct realistic drills, and, lacking those resources, do halfassed ones without considering whether they might be doing more harm than good. I think this is a significant problem.

If you have the option of doing a halfassed, typical-office-environment fire drill every six months, or a real no-fucking-around get-the-hell-out drill once every few years (with some sort of reward/humiliation for those who make it out or burn to death, respectively, or whatever it takes for people to take it seriously), I think you are probably better off doing the latter than the former. But a lot of organizations opt for the former.

In my opinion, it's because the organizations, like the people in them, don't take the threat seriously, and thus they don't take the requirement to conduct drills seriously, and as a result they don't put any thought into making people take them seriously. I don't know of any easy solution to that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:54 PM on February 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


locus ceruleus.
posted by clavdivs at 6:17 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


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