From Mass Panic to Reality

When many people get injured at an event the word “mass panic” often follows. Like at the Love Parade in Duisburg (2010), the finals of the Europe Cup of the national champion in the Heysel stadium (1985), at Air & Style Innsbruck (1999) or the Haddsch (2015).

Often pictures emerge of people getting trampled to death, horrific images that allow the conclusion, that panic or mass panic is a very common phenomenon and implies an uncontrolled, reckless behaviour of people. This should be taken into account especially in security planning and particularly in the event of a potential evacuation.

The construct of the mass panic can be followed back to Gustav Le Bon’s social psychological work “Psychology of the Masses” (1895) where a large crowds tend to become describable with the attributes weak-willed, aggressive, naive, impulsive and irrational. The individual in a crowd merges completely with the crowd and becomes unable to make individual decisions.

Even during his lifetime Le Bon was criticised for his remarks. Nevertheless, many of these myths persue up until present. Numerous studies show a completely different picture of human behaviour in crowds during emergencies (including the tragedies in the Beverly Hills Supper Club, in the Summerland leisure complex, at the Love Parade in Duisburg, the terrorist attacks in London and the evacuation of the World Trade Center).

It was shown that the vast majority of people in life-threatening situations prone to coordinated, structured and helpful behaviour and is therefore completely contrary to above myths and media deception.

Panic or panic-like behaviour could, if at all, be established only to a very small extent (< 1%). Thus wrote as Prof. Dr. Dirk Helbing, after his investigation of the accident at the Love Parade in Duisburg: “The dead are the result of a physical, not a psychological effect”. This means that the cause was not panic (psychological effect) but simply too high  pressure (physical effect), due to a high number of people per square meter.

Mr Neil Townsend (from the London Fire Rescue Service) goes one step further and states: ‘When people die in fires, it’s not because of panic, it’s more likely to be the lack of panic’. To illustrate Mr Townsends point let’s elaborate.

An evacuation phase can be divided in to two main phases. Pre evacuation phase and the actual evacuation phase (motion phase). Each warning is processed by every individual in following sequence: perception, understanding, identifying as real, relating with, to rank as relevant, decide and respond.

Once the individual decides to respond (i.e. to leave) the motion phase begins.

However, if due to false or poor alerting the persons concerned do not perceive the warnings, understand, identify as real, relate to or rank as relevant, the desired response, the evacuation, fails. An evacuation experiment in a London Underground Station showed, for example that the use of an alarm bell was entirely inadequate (the experiment had to be canceled after 14 minutes since nobody responded). A speaker system with real information content and wording, on the other hand, showed in the same setting as very efficient.

An incorrectly initiated evacuation process looses too much vital time. The later people start fleeing, the less time is available for the actual evacuation phase creating higher (and potentially dangerous) pressures at the exits. As the density of people per square meter increases, the possible flow rate rapidly decreases. The following people can not recognise the cause (in a high-density sight is very limited) and start pushing due to urgency of time. This pressure, in turn, compresses the people within the funnel additionally leading to a further reduction of the flow rate (up to the total standstill or blockage of the exit).

Therefore, what Mr Townsend meant with his statement was, that people in hazardous situations often show too little fear and don’t acknowledge threats despite warnings. Thus delay the motion phase, sometimes even too late.

But what does this have to with the above mentioned panic or mass panic?

The assumption that panic or mass panic will emerge easily influences the type of alarming systems chosen. Due to this concern warnings are often not set off or delayed (since mass panic is incorrectly considered a frequent occurring phenomena) or extremely important information is withheld (‚due to technical problems‘). In addition to the appropriate width of the escape route, additional focus should therefore be on quality of selected communication means and contents of the alarm to keep the pre – evacuation phase as short as possible and therefore have more time for the actual evacuation phase (motion phase).

These steps can not be organised on the fly, they should be well thought out and planned in advance. Appropriate arrangements will reduce the response time, guide people, avoid high densities and can prevent tragedies.

In summary, panic or mass panic is very rare phenomenon and the behaviour of people in emergency situations is mostly structured, organised and helpful. Core issues during the evacuation is the pre evacuation phase. In order to keep them as short as possible and allow more time for the actual movement phase, the right choice of means of communication including adequate information, content and wording of the utmost importance.


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