What brain does in a crisis

Research into peoples reactions to make sure there are more survivors

 The decision could determine whether you live or die – but the way you make it is not as random as you might think, according to Ed Galea, professor of mathematical modelling at the University of Greenwich.

Galea has forged a career out of working out the science and psychology behind how people’s brains function in disaster zones. He has interviewed thousands of survivors, from 300 people who escaped the World Trade Centre on 9/11 to  Paddington rail disaster survivors. His research results are used by governments, building designers and emergency workers around the world.

His latest project, funded by a £1.8 million European Union grant, is BeSeCu (Behaviour, Security and Culture), which involves trying to understand whether culture affects the way people behave in emergency situations. “The question we’re answering is, do people from different countries behave differently in a crisis?”, says Galea.  
So BeSeCu is carrying out “unannounced evacuation drills” in multistorey university library buildings around Europe, including Poland, Czech Republic and Turkey, and comparing the results with evacuation data from Brazil and the UK. “We’re going to compare the data on response time and behaviour. If it varies in different places, that will suggest that we’ll have to take a much more localised approach.”

Galea’s interest was triggered by victims’ responses to a tragic fire in the Daegu underground in Korea. “I looked at photographs of the inside of burning carriages, and collaborated with a Korean researcher who interviewed survivors. Most sat around, waiting for instructions from an authority figure. When I presented the findings at a UK conference, it was suggested that my data was irrelevant because ‘that would never happen in the UK’. So I started wondering whether people around the world react differently.”

Working at Greenwich’s Fire Safety Engineering Group, Galea and his team have designed Exodus, a computer modelling system that can simulate how people behave in emergency evacuations, which is used in 33 countries. It was used in the design of London’s O2 arena, Sydney’s Olympic stadium, the “bird’s nest” arena in Beijing and the Airbus A380.

Now he is adding to the model by analysing data from interviews with survivors of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the Madrid bombings. The findings will be used to improve computer software so it better reflects how people behave in emergencies.
There are also practical ideas that are easier to implement, Galea says. “I’m looking at how people respond to alarms and instructions. If people on trains always wait for an official to tell them what to do, then perhaps we need to improve communication systems on trains so they have a better chance of working in extreme situations.” On planes, Galea recommends choosing a seat close to an exit. “I always try and sit within five rows of an exit on an aisle seat.”

One thing that does make him upset, however, is disaster movies. The recent to hit our screens was 2012, which makes him “frustrated about how badly Hollywood gets it wrong”.

“Hollywood shows people panicking, but my research shows that 9.9 times out of 10, people don’t turn into crazed individuals, but behave quite rationally. They tend to help each other, too,” says Galea.
The Guardian

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