In today’s post, I write about the December 2010 article “To Leave an Area After Disaster: How Evacuees from the WTC Buildings Left the WTC Area Following the Attacks” by Rae Zimmerman and Martin F. Sherman. It compliments my earlier post about Amanda Ripley’s (2008) book, The Unthinkable.
For those of you who work in tall buildings and who are responsible for ensuring that your employees evacuate safely, this paper published by the Society of Risk Analysis is a must-read resource. It is a well-written 18-page paper that includes just the right amount of statistical data and tables obtained from surveys of people who evacuated the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
So the fire alarm just went off and a voice tells you to leave the building. What happens next?
The authors note that not everyone decides to leave their office area immediately to evacuate the building. Many people will make phone calls, gather personal items, look for friends/co-workers or make sure others are able to leave. In many cases, people did more than one of these things before they decided to evacuate.
Similarly, when people arrived safely on the street, not everyone left the area immediately and when that was the case, people indicated they stopped to see what was happening/get more information, looked for friends/co-workers, used the phone or simply didn’t know where to go. (See Table III for a complete list or reasons.)
As someone who is responsible for communicating evacuation information to the 150+ people on my floor, it is quite troubling. Despite efforts to provide fire evacuation training, the authors point out that only half the people “knew enough about the building to safely leave without directions from fire safety or security staff” and only 6% of respondents had “exited the building as part of the fire drills they participated in”. As I noted in my post about The Unthinkable (which I wrote before reading this paper): “I think fewer than 5% actually made it to the recovery site” (when my organization had an evacuation drill last year).
Once again, like all things risk management, it’s about planning and communicating and hoping that people take it serious enough so they get out when the disaster strikes.