If you read some of the news articles about the recent apartment fire in London, you’ll see quite a bit of commentary about the panic encountered by people trapped on the upper floors of the building. Similar to the attacks on 9/11, people can be seen in YouTube videos jumping out of windows from heights that would seemingly guarantee their death.
Mike is a full-time police officer and tactical medic. He has experience as a K9 handler, SWAT operator, and Law Enforcement Instructor. Mike started Tactical Tangents as part of his fundamental purpose to save lives. His goal is to enhance the survival of police officers and concerned citizens by helping them become better, smarter, faster, and more efficient. His opinions are for informational purposes only and do not reflect those of his employer or any other government agency.
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Arguably, many of us would prefer to die in a fall from great heights than burn alive. The thing about panic is that we don’t usually make choices in a way that considers the trade-offs or runs through a risks/benefits analysis—we tend to act subconsciously, without thought or deliberation. While the cause and contributing factors of the fire are still being investigated, it is important that we invest some time to understand panic so that in times of peril, we can keep our wits and stack the odds in our favor.
In the 1950s, a researcher at the University of Chicago wrote a paper that laid out a recipe for psychological disaster. His thesis was that three basic (but subjective) ingredients contributed to panic. The first was that people must feel trapped. This feeling is different from actually being trapped—in fact there are documented cases (such as in submarine crises) during which people who knew they were trapped eluded panic because of the certainty that there was no other way out than to problem-solve. The second ingredient is a feeling of helplessness—that is, the feeling that there is nothing you can do. During evacuations in which people have a strategy to escape, we might be able to avoid this factor. Fire drills work because they teach us to line up and walk out as rehearsed. But once we find that our planned exits are obstructed, we start to worry. This is one of the reasons flight attendants always point out the exits and remind you that the closest exit might be behind you. Sometimes, a feeling of helplessness can be amplified by those around us—people screaming, yelling for help, or otherwise falling deeper into the panic-spiral. The reaction of those around us might also contribute to the final ingredient: the feeling of isolation—that you are on your own and every man is for himself. When people start making desperate or selfish attempts to get past a crowd or through an exit, they often create more problems than solutions. People who are otherwise level-headed may feel more isolated when those around them act in such a way. The lesson here is that people who find a way to work together towards a solution often avoid the depths of panic. That might require someone to have some leadership and take charge, and others to be team-players and follow directions—but we all know that is a lot to ask from a group of strangers in a subway terminal or the 29th floor of an apartment building.
So what else can we do about it? Well, we’ve dropped a couple of clues here, but there is a lot to be said about planning and training. Some studies suggest that in times of stress, our mind goes through an appraisal process during which we assess our ability and our alternatives for coping with a crisis. The more thought and training we have put into a scenario, the more likely our brains are to appraise our ability and alternatives to deal with it favorably. This is one of the reasons those flight attendants walk us through that list of possibilities before every flight—fire, smoke, water evacuations, cabin depressurization, emergency exits, and so on. In the 1970s, the NTSB studied a plane crash at Pago Pago, Samoa and learned that 100% of the handful of survivors read the aircraft safety card and paid attention to the safety briefing before takeoff. Unlike those passengers who perished, they exited over the wing instead of the more traditional but more dangerous exits in that particular case. If we walk through the risk-management process we described here, and find ways to mitigate some of those risks, we’re off to a good start. We have to acknowledge that some risks are inevitable. Use PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) to brainstorm ways we might be able to handle inevitable risks. Using fire evacuations as an example, Primary and Alternate escape routes might be pretty straightforward—there might be more than one stairwell, or there is a front door and back door. Then we need to get into contingencies: breaking out windows with furniture, knocking down flames with an extinguisher or water source enough to get past an obstruction, or low-crawling through the smoke to make our escape. Finally, what if those aren’t options? Can I breach through a wall? Can I rappel from a window with a bed sheet? How would you do it, if you had to? Going through this process might prompt us to buy more fire extinguishers, or keep a rope or some tools in our closet—when things get Western, that gives us some options. Options subdue panic—they give us the mental strategy we need to appraise the situation as manageable and stay in the fight.
One of our goals at Tactical Tangents is to teach people how to apply critical thinking and problem solving to survival. Risk Management and PACE are good tools to that end. It’s important to remember that we have to back that up with training. We have to go through physical and mental rehearsals to override our ape-brains. When the adrenaline hits, we will lose 100 IQ points. We cannot assume that we will rise to the occasion, we will usually fall to the level of our training and perform as we have practiced. If our plan is to low-crawl through the smoke or tie-off to some furniture, we might want to work the kinks out before our lives depend on it. We need feasible alternatives to avoid the feeling of being trapped, isolated, and helpless. Working through this process of planning, risk-management, and training might prevent us from falling apart under pressure.