Some articles have been written over the years about panic in disasters and fires. The idea that panic rarely occurs in disasters has been readily accepted. When disasters happen, usually, people act in such a way to show solidarity with the other victims. It is common to see some degree of organization in order to assist searches and reconstruction work.
There are several definitions for panic, but in general, the most adopted concept is the irrational behavior before a critical situation. This is a simple definition, and for this reason, many people believe that panic is quickly developed immediately after any disaster, what is not true.
Panic, however, requires more than just a critical event to be produced. The perception of an imminent risk for death or serious threat allied to a low chance to escape is the basic elements that lead to a panic. In these situations, anything can happen.
One example is someone desperately running towards a shelter to escape from a tornado. This person knows where the shelter is and what he must do to be saved. Another situation is someone trying to escape from a fire, not knowing where to go or how to get there.
People following the mass displacement to the same direction can often be automatic. A tendency to copy the behavior of others is often found in evacuations, as well as people usually trying to get out by the same gate they have entered. This behavior was evident on the occasion of the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, where 602 people died, and in the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942. We can also mention the fire in the Beverly Hills Club (1977), in the Great American Circus in Niteroi, Brazil (1961), as well as in the Cromagnón Republic, Argentina (2004), among others. At the Kiss nightclub fire in 2013, where 242 young people died trying to escape from a true "trap", the panic was clearly described. Why dozens of people went to the bathroom believing that this was the exit? Were they not following the masses?
Often, some articles say that, in the same manner panic is not common in disasters, it is also rare in fires, which is controverted.
A crowded room with people pushing each other, shouting, darkness, smoke, watery eyes, coughing, fallen people, bodies on the ground, the difficulty of finding a way out and the heating feeling increasing. This is a description of scenarios where many deaths have occurred over the years, particularly in overcrowded nightclubs and with few or no emergency exits. It is not hard to imagine that such a situation is completely different from a natural disaster and in this cases, the panic can be installed quickly. In less than 3 minutes, high levels of cyanide, combined with carbon monoxide and low oxygen concentration, can be fatal. In 1946, in the Fire Winecoff Hotel (1946), it was reported that when firefighters arrived on the scene (within one minute after the alarm), several people had already jumped to the death from the higher floors of the building. They saw no alternative but to throw themselves out of the window. Can we say that this is a rational behavior? Or admit that a panic situation was present? It is different from those who were in the lower floors and tried to go down with makeshift ropes. The same erratic behavior was seen in many other fires. The desperation because, of the heat of the flames, toxic smoke and no glimpse of an acceptable alternative exit route, can certainly cause irrational behavior or panic.
The same authors of articles that say that panic is also rare in fires often are based on reports from survivors who said they had not seen panic. The survivors could not stay on site to see what happened to the other victims. They were focused on getting to save themselves. In fact, it is possible that they were saved because they did not panic.
Another frequent argument used by some experts is that the term "panic in fires and other tragedies ends up putting the responsibility for the deaths over the victims. "Something like saying that they died because they were out of control. Thus, the cause of the fire would be at the second layer. This is not correct to be assumed. There are no reports about fires or any other tragedies in which the main causes were not investigated because the deaths were credited to the panic. People die because of panic that it is often provoked by the criminal or inconsequent actions of other people.
In 2003, the Station nightclub in Rhode Island caught fire, killing 100 youngsters with a number of injured. A video made from the first seconds inside that place initially shows people trying to leave the place neatly. Many got out and no panic situation was observed. As time goes on however, the screams began to be heard and the image of people "stacked" at the main exit can be seen. People died in less than 5 minutes. Is it correct to say that panic was not present?
It is very common to find people trying to label human behavior. Those who do not admit that panic is a real concern end up adopting some narrow concepts for the same terminology. Sometimes, the understatement is used to find other words, which in the practice match the same definition of panic.
What is the problem in admitting that panic is a situation that can occur in fires, especially when the risk is imminent and the chances of escape seen by victims, as almost impossible? If panic does not exist, then there would be no need to panic hardware or professionals working to organize the evacuation and avoid panic, as provided in Fire Codes.
What name can we give to situations where dozens of people try to leave at the same time, through the same door, where they note that there are fallen people and yet persist?
Another issue concerns the panic models used. Panic cannot be simulated for various reasons. No situation could be simulated to actually cause intense fear in a person, so he believes that is going die within some minutes. If would be a serious ethical violation. The panic simulations on computers are very interesting and have several advantages, but are based on the average speed of people displacement that behaves in a standardized manner. In the real word, we have children, elderly, disabled, people with the most different types of physique, desperately trying to escape alive from a closed place in fire.
People do not go at the same speed and do not act in a standardized manner. It has no way to be tested through simulated. Precisely because no one knows what he can do to save his own life or his relatives until facing a situation of this nature.
This mass behavior has been studied for over a hundred years. All who have worked in major events and riots know that it is common to find people acting so only because they are following the mass behavior. They are able to act completely different than they would if they were alone. So much so that one of the successful tactics used by the police in such cases, it is to divide the mass into small groups.
To ignore or not admit the real possibility of panic in fires, as in the situations described above, makes it difficult to search for solutions or models for panic prevention and control. If is not possible to predict the reaction of people after the panic sets in. However, we should know what are the elements to be mitigated and work to prevent its occurrence. To not believe that panic might occur in fires will not protect anyone.
Luiz Hargreaves, AAS, MD, MS, MA is a qualified Expert in Crisis Management and Disaster Preparedness. He has been working in these fields for more than 30 years, with a large experience in major events, counterterrorism, disaster prevention and emergency planning.
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