Preparing for an evacuation: stay cool, stay comfortable, plan ahead.

shutterstock_100849096(1)A recent study by Essex University used the idea of zombies to test how people tended to act during evacuations.

Researchers at the University of Essex have created a computer game in which players must escape from a crowded building that has been breached by zombie hordes. The scientists, whose findings have been published in the journal Animal Behaviour, used the simulator to gather data about how stress affects decision making.

The team asked attendees at the Science Museum’s ZombieLab event to find the optimal route out of a virtual, zombie-infested environment. Whilst some participants were allowed to complete the task at their own pace, others were told that they had to escape the building in record-breaking time.

The researchers discovered that when participants were placed under additional pressure, their decisions tended to be poorer than when no extra element of stress had been introduced. Far from focusing their minds, stress caused people to resort to questionable tactics. Rather than attempting to identify novel, more effective exit strategies, for example, individuals attempting to beat target times were more likely to retread familiar routes.

This isn’t terribly shocking.  When we’re in an evacuation or any other rushed situation we want to do what is familiar to us.  This is actually smart.  You don’t want your brain’s limited processing power distracted with plotting new terrain.  We simply think more clearly when we’re comfortable.

So what’s the take home lesson here?  The lesson is that we can lose control of our thoughts, and that even if we spend time collecting ourselves and getting to a point where we can think clearly, even if we’re under time pressure, then that time has almost always been well-spent.  Decisions made in a panic can snowball quickly into other, more serious mistakes.  A few minutes preventing that are almost always worth the lost time acting.

If the goal is to get out of a crowded building in a limited amount of time, it may not be the wisest course of action to go your normal route if that route is likely to be used by everybody else.  How else could you get out of a building like that?

  • Is there a window you could open?  If the window doesn’t open, is there something heavy you can throw through it?  A blanket or towel draped over the remaining broken glass will help keep you from being cut as you exit.  Even if you’re lacking a blanket or towel, a few cuts are preferable to being the equivalent of canned food with no escape in a clogged hallway.
  • Is there a fire escape?
  • Is there a service entrance/exit?

In no industry has more evacuation studies been done than in the airline industry.  Those studies have found that an evacuation run by a person of authority being firm in their commands is most effective, because then people evacuate in an orderly fashion.  However, in a rapidly developing situation in a shopping mall or a skyscraper, where nobody is an acknowledged authority (and even if they were, where they were likely untrained for how to manage such a scenario), it may be better to avoid places where there is a panicked mob.

The even bigger concern is what to do once you’ve gotten out of the building.  What are your goals?  Where do you need to go?  Are you separated from people you need to be with?  The outside will be full of panicked people and possibly the undead.  Your job is to be neither of those things.  In order to succeed, you need to have done a lot of the work ahead of time.

  • Have a place to meet with friends and family arranged ahead of time.  In an emergency the phone lines will be clogged, so don’t wait until the dead rise to decide on this location.
  • Never let your car’s tank fall below half.  If you’re in the middle of a city, don’t even try to get out using a vehicle.  You’ll wind up in a traffic jam that will make you a sitting duck.  But if you live on the outskirts of a town facing an isolated incident and if your reaction time is fast enough, you may be able to put the town to your tail and not look back: providing you have enough gas to get you away.
  • Have a battery-powered radio handy at all times.  Listen in for emergency instructions and updates.  Knowledge is worth more than anything to you.
  • Leave a note if you suspect people will come looking for you.  Leave it on your desk or someplace people know you would have been.  If you must pin it to the door and hope for the best, be somewhat cryptic.  You want your friend to find you, but you don’t want to let a freaked out survivor who may want to take your supplies find you a few days later.
  • Check your dress.  Comfort may be fashion, but comfort is also often achieved by wearing looser clothing.  Loose clothing provides something for the undead (or panicked living) to grab a hold of.  Keep your hair cut short or tucked tight so it’s not dangling and wear skin-hugging clothes.  For many Americans this will make us self-conscious.  However, self-conscious is a load better than dead.  Wear such clothing under your other clothes if you must, but don’t plan on having enough time to do a full clothing change when the alarm bells first ring.

Til next time, survivors.

1 Response

Leave a Reply