When I say evacuate, I mean evacuate NOW

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.

3 thoughts on “When I say evacuate, I mean evacuate NOW

  1. I live and work in a city that consists of almost nothing but high-rise buildings – including the tallest building in the world. We have something like 200 nationalities in the workforce, making it practically impossible to provide useful information that everyone can use…even if they did bother to use the information presented to them, which frankly, most people here take no notice of.
    We’ve had no serious incidents…somehow. There are generally very few trained personnel around who would know what to do in the case of an emergency, and as a result of their lowly cultural status, if they tried to direct or manage people in an emergency nobody would take any notice of them!
    There are some quite stringent fire and life-safety regulations being introduced, but they don’t apply to the buildings that went up during the boom, when perhaps the practices followed were more geared towards getting the building up than following the code…

    Of equal importance is the management of evacuation of very large horizontal structures such as stadia and malls, where the flow capacity of the exit routes need to be considered. The key here is the command and control infrastructure required to make sure that the exiting crowds are directed properly and that they don’t all end up at the same place at the same time…

  2. Thanks for your comments. As I suspect you’re writing about Dubai you really should read The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley and what she write about the hajj in neighbouring Saudi.

  3. Thanks Riskczar, I’ll certainly check it out.
    Hajj is an accident waiting to happen…except it frequently does happen. We just don’t get to hear much about it outside of the Kingdom.
    I don’t think anyone’s had a close look at the total impact of the pilgrimage from end to end, so it will be interesting to see what Amanda has to say. There are a lot of side issues to do with the public health and economics of it that I think go mostly ignored…not to mention the core public safety and security issues that go with every gathering of a few million people!!

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