Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, February 15, 2013

People doing their own thing makes managing emergencies very hard

I don't know if you've seen movies like Contagion (or some movie, I can't seem to figure out the title, featuring Jeremy Sisto and a biological weapons attack in Greater Los Angeles) where things descend into chaos and disorder as a result of a mass contagion and the long period of time required to wrest the disease under control.

The thing is people do what they want, regardless of what they are told to do by experts.  (This was a problem with the earthquake a couple summers ago that struck the DC region.  People were told--if their workplace safety officers had the right training--to stay in place, stay inside.  Many people did not, went outside, left for home, left work to check on their children, etc.)

And experts, often, keep people out of the loop in terms of information, so people often do their own thing, right or wrong, regardless of what they are told because there is little trust.  (This is a big problem with WMATA, which has a lot of incidents--people committing suicide etc.--and doesn't provide enough information for people to divert off the system quickly enough.)

They also react the way they do because they panic and act out of a sense of trying to create control, even if the choices they make are ill-considered and/or "wrong."

I think that's partly what happened with regard to the debacle of some subway train failures in Anacostia a few weeks ago.  See "Metro: Miscommunication complicated Green Line chaos last month" from the Post.

First, clearly WMATA doesn't have its incident and emergency management protocols and responses down, and the Metro Transit Police need to up their game and training in this regard especially, since it was a (well-meaning but mistaken) MTP officer who triggered the system shutdown and then didn't handle proper reporting of the action, which slowed down the broader agency's emergency response.

Left: photo of people evacuating the subway near College Park, after an incident last year.  (Washington Post photo.)

Second, passengers did their own thing--getting out of the cars and evacuating on their own--this prevented WMATA from turning the electric power back on and delaying for more than one hour the restart of the system in that area, because WMATA had no idea whether everyone was off the tracks.

(Something similar also happened last summer in another incident on the Green Line in Prince George's County, see "Rebellion on the Green Line: Passengers flee stalled Metro train" and "Metro to revise evacuation procedures and extreme weather guidelines" from the Post.)

In emergencies, plan for chaos, not order.



At 12:40 PM, Blogger Mari said...

We did what we wanted because (in my case) our building's emergency personnel took 30 mins to say ANYTHING! By that time most of us have cleared out. The other's who did not have the freedom to leave their posts, waited for the personnel to tell them what to do.
It is a matter of timing.
It took our building's leaders to determine, 'hey, this is an emergency, maybe we should say/do something.' The other thing was people come in and out of the building for all sorts of reasons (lunch, quick errand, meetings elsewhere, smoke break, jogging, etc), so corralling employees adn visitors to a safe spot works great, in theory and drills.
I don't know how long metro riders decided to give Metro a chance before they said, 'fcuk it I'm outta here.' It may have began with a few people, but you start seeing a bunch of people walking past your car or escaping the car, you might figure your best bet is to leave too. If when I left my building, I didn't see 30 of my fellow workers hanging out in the fire drill meeting point, I would have gone back in the building.

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...


It happens that I work at home, and didn't follow the right protocol either, which is to stay in place. But Suzanne is the safety officer at her federal agency unit, and she has training in earthquake preparedness, because she is from Southern California. She told people what to do, and probably 1/2 didn't follow her instructions.

2. But yes, "the mushroom treatment" doesn't engender trust, and then people do their own things.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like anyone would trust Metro's competence? After an hours worth of nothing but "The train will be moving forward momentarily" announcements, with no substantive information, the hell if I'd sit around and wait.


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