Panic, what Panic?

On 19 Oct 2012 a B737 operated by Jet2 was on its take off roll when smoke was detected in the cabin.  The Captain brought the aircraft to a quick stop and all 189 passengers evacuated the aircraft.  I am guessing that the aircraft also had six crew who also evacuated.  Some 17 passengers were reported to be injured during the evacuation, four of which were being treated in hospital.

 The BBC headline on their website for this story states,

 Glasgow Airport evacuation: Passenger tells of panic on Jet2 plane

Is this a fair account of the situation on board the Jet2 aircraft?  Were people really behaving irrationally and in a selfish manner during this evacuation?  Had social norms broken down, was it everyone for themselves?  Or is this just another media exaggeration to sensationalise a story?

Other media accounts had more factual headlines, such as from the Express web site:

17 Injured as plane is evacuated at Glasgow Airport after smoke alert.

From the Telegraph web site we have:

Glasgow Airport Seventeen injured as aircraft aborts take off

From the Mail Online web site we have:

20 crew and passengers are INJURED in emergency evacuation by inflatable slides from jet at Glasgow airport after “engine” fills cabin with smoke.

Evacuating an aircraft is not something that people do every day, and so it is going to be an unusual experience for most people, and a frightening experience for most, especially if you believe, as these people must have, that a fire had started on board.  All 189 passengers will also have to exit the aircraft in an awful hurry and in an unusual and physical manner i.e. jumping onto slides or climbing out of the overwing exit, onto the wing and then jump to the ground.  The cabin crew will have been yelling at the passengers to evacuate, leave your bags, jump onto the slide, while the cabin was filling with acrid smoke.  The passengers on board would have been a mix of people including;  men, women, children, the elderly, family groups and possibly disabled people.  They would have had a range of flying experience from frequent flyers to the ocassional  flyer.  Given this mix of people we would not expect everyone to react in the same way, and not everyone will react without emotion.  But will panic really break out in this situation, will it be everyone for themselves, as the BBC headline suggests?

The opening sentence of the BBC article may give this impression,

 “Passengers on an Alicante-bound plane from Glasgow Airport have described “sheer panic” after “swirling” smoke in the cabin forced an emergency stop.” 

So what do the BBC base this on?  A quote from one passenger was reported as,

“… passenger X said “people started running” as the pilot of the Jet2 737 shouted “get out, get out” following the emergency stop at 07:40.”….”

Well this seems quite normal given the situation, who wouldn’t be trying to run out of an aircraft filling with smoke with the captain and cabin crew yelling at you to get out!  Indeed, you would be in a panicked state if you just froze on the spot and didn’t do anything — this is called negative panic or behavioural inaction.  It is a normal behaviour to try and get out of the aircraft as quickly as possible, especially if the captain and cabin crew are yelling at you to get out!

The BBC inform us that one passenger was travelling with his young family and report the passenger as saying, 

 “I have a nine-week-old daughter and a four-year-old daughter. I had my nine-week-old attached to my chest as I went down the emergency chute and my wife had our four-year-old and was in tears. ……. It was just sheer panic, something no-one would want to go through again.”

Clearly this situation is extremely frightening and traumatic, especially if you have a wife, child and infant to look after, make your way to the emergency exit and then jump onto a slide — all while the other 185 passengers are trying to get out and the aircraft is filling with smoke.  It is not surprising that there were tears and it is not surprising that they would have been extremely anxious and would have had adrenaline pumping.  But the behaviour of this family does not sound like a panic behaviour.  They kept together and assisted each other out of the aircraft.  Their behaviour sounds like a rational response to the extra ordinary situation that they found themselves in.  While the passenger uses the “P” word in his description it would have been helpful had the journalist gone on to ask the passenger to describe the scenes of panic that he reported.  Often people will use the “P” word to describe people running away from danger, or people crying.  This does not indicate that people were behaving in an irrational manner or that social norms are ignored.

The BBC also selectively quote another passenger’s account in their article and also helpfully include a recording of the interview.  In the article the passenger is reported as saying,

“I was sitting in row 11 and I could smell smoke as we were accelerating hard. “I looked up. One or two passengers, including myself, had our reading light on and when I looked up to the lamps and the ceiling, I could actually see smoke swirling around and I thought, oops, there’s something not right here.  “We were accelerating very, very hard down the runway at this stage and I was about to scream out to the cabin crew when obviously the pilot realised there was something wrong and he immediately throttled the engines back and put the brakes on. “It’s the hardest braking I’ve ever experienced in my life.” 

This is where the BBC article leaves the interview.  This selective quotation fits into the tone of the story that is being told by the journalist, smoke filling the aircraft and the dramatic stop.  However, in the recorded interview, which is also available on the BBC website, the passenger goes on to say, but is not quoted in the article,

“….a few seconds later he gave the order to evacuate. Everybody got out of their seats, one or two passengers tried to reach into the overhead lockers to get their baggage but they were politely told in no uncertain Glaswegian terms just get out of the aircraft” both the journalist and the passenger laugh, “leave your bags and get out, but there was no panic”.

The passenger is describing an orderly behaviour and makes the observation that there was no panic.  This unfortunately does not fit into the tone of the article and so is not reported.  The journalist desperately tries to get back to possible stories of panic and extreme behaviour and goes onto to say,

“You are laughing about it now but that is probably not what you were feeling about it at the time.”

 The passenger (helpfully) responds,

 “..There was smoke coming off the right hand engine so I was going out the left overwing exit….we all wanted to get off as quickly as possible but it was all orderly, there was no panic.”

In describing his own behaviour the passenger paints a picture of rational behaviour, a clear thought process that lead him to select an appropriate exit.  He also describes the behaviour of others as being orderly and states that there was no panic.  Clearly this account does not fit with the tone of the article so it is not reported.  The journalist rather go with the easy story, the story that is going to make a sensationalist headline, the story that is in-line with the publics hollywood feed expectations when it comes to evacuation stories — people panic!

While these two accounts are not sufficient to base a judgement on the nature of the evacuation from the Jet2 aircraft, they certainly do not support the BBC headline or the tone of the BBC story.  I am sure that there were people screaming and crying during the evacuation, but this in itself is not an indication of panic behaviour.  Indeed, the accounts in the BBC story support the understanding built up over the past 30+ years that on the whole people do not tend to panic in emergency situations.  Indeed, quite the opposite, people tend to behave in a rational way and social norms are maintained even in the most extreme situations.

Unfortunately, this story simply perpetuates the myth that in emergency situations the norm is for people to panic.  I think that a more interesting, uplifting story is that in emergency situations people tend not to panic, but tend to behave in a rational supportive manner and are more likely to assist others then selfishly think only of themselves.

The Jet2 aircraft after the evacuation (picture from ITV website)



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FSEG YOUTUBE Channel passes quarter of a million video views

The FSEG YOUTUBE channel has just passed a second milestone — over 250,000 video views of FSEG featured fire safety research output! Well done to the FSEG team and thank you to all of our viewers!

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FSEG at the “Human Behaviour in Fire” 2012 Conference

FSEG will be at the Human Behaviour in Fire conference next week (19-21 Sept 2012) in Cambridge UK.   FSEG staff attending the conference are: Prof Ed Galea, Dr Steve Gwynne, Dr Mike Kinsey, Dr Steve Deere, Mr Darren Blackshields, Dr Lynn Hulse, Ms Aoife Hunt (Phd Student), Ms Maria Pretorius (Phd Student), Mr Simo Haasanen (Phd Student), Mr Robert Brown (Phd Student) and Mrs Kirsten Salzer-Frost (Phd Student).

Come and visit the EXODUS demo stand and check out our most recent research which will be presented through 7 papers:

“Fire and Evacuation Simulation of the Fatal 1985 Manchester Airport B737 Fire”, Wang, Z., Jia, F., and Galea, E.R.


In this paper, fire and evacuation computer simulations are conducted to determine the impact of exit opening times on the evacuation and survivability during the Manchester Airport B737 fire of 1985. The fire and evacuation simulation tools, SMARTFIRE and airEXODUS are used in the analysis. The work is in two parts, the first part attempts to reconstruct the actual fire incident and ensuing evacuation using the known facts derived from the official investigation report.  The second part investigates the impact of exit opening times on the aircraft fire development and subsequent evacuation. The results suggest that the number of fatalities could have been reduced by 92% had the delays in opening two of the three exits been avoided.  Furthermore, it is suggested that opening of the unused aft right exit during the accident did not contribute to the high loss of life in this accident.  Indeed, it is suggested that the opening of this exit improved survivability within the cabin and reduced the death toll by some 17%.

“Investigating the impact of culture on evacuation behaviour — A Polish Data-Set”, Galea, E.R., Sharp, G., Sauter, M., Deere, S.J., Filippidis, L.

In this paper results from an unannounced evacuation trial conducted within a library inWarsawPolandare presented and discussed. This experimental evacuation is part of a large international study investigating the impact of culture on evacuation behaviour. In addition, a framework to enable the systematic analysis of Response Phase behaviours is presented and applied to the trial data. The framework not only provides a consistent method for describing Response Phase behaviour, but also provides a framework for classifying and quantifying the Response Phase other than simply using the overall response time. An empirical response time model, based on data generated using the framework is also presented and applied to the evacuation trial data. The empirical response time model produces a prediction for the average response time for the trial population which is within 3% of the measured value. In addition to presenting Response Phase data, a data-set suitable for the validation of evacuation models is also presented. This consists of both egress times and time dependent density measurements.  buildingEXODUS predictions of the evacuation are compared with the validation data and shown to be in good agreement with the measured data.

“Modelling Human Factors and Evacuation Lift Dispatch Strategies”, Kinsey, M.J., Galea, E.R., and Lawrence, P.J.


This paper presents an overview of a series of evacuation simulations utilising different lift dispatch strategies using an empirical based enhanced agent-lift model developed within the buildingEXODUS software. A brief description of the enhanced agent-lift model is presented. The evacuation scenarios investigated are based on a hypothetical 50 floor building with four staircases and a population of 7,840 agents. While past studies have measured the influence of such evacuation lift dispatch strategies assuming compliant/homogenous agent behaviour, this study extends that work by highlighting the potential influence of human factors upon such evacuation lift dispatch strategies. The study suggests that evacuation lift human factors can considerably decrease evacuation performance and highlights the need for consideration within evacuation strategies based on lifts.  

“An Analysis of the Performance of Trained Staff Using Movement Assist Devices To Evacuate the Non-Ambulant”, Hunt, A., Galea E.R., and Lawrence, P.J.

This paper describes a series of trials undertaken to quantify the performance of trained hospital staff in evacuating a test subject through 11 floors of Ghent University Hospital using four commonly used movement assistance devices: stretcher, carry-chair, evacuation chair and rescue sheet.  In total 32 trials were conducted, using both male and female assist teams.  Presented in the paper are performance results, including: device preparation time, horizontal speeds, vertical speeds, and overtaking potential in stairwells. These data, alongside those established in questionnaire data from the experiment participants, form the basis of the device performance evaluation presented in this paper. A comparative methodology is derived to assess the efficiency of the devices. This methodology enabled performance differences to be established, according to the devices employed and the staff involved.

“The UK BeSeCu Fire Fighter Study: A Study of UK Fire Fighters’ Emotional, Cognitive and Behavioural Reactions to Emergencies”, Hulse, L.M. and Galea, E.R.

A survey of UK firefighters revealed them to be seemingly psychologically prepared for what their job would expose them to but not immune to experiencing emotional arousal or perceived risk during emergency events. A number of aspects, such as the event posing serious consequences to their lives/well-being, were singled out as particularly distressing and linked with greater emotional arousal, while other aspects, ones focused on other people/circumstances, reduced perceived risk. Traffic accidents appeared to be a special case, inducing lower arousal and risk than another commonly attended emergency, domestic fires. More years of service had a positive effect on the risk perceived during a stressful event but heightened the emotional arousal in that moment. Received support was one of the most significant predictors of posttraumatic stress and growth, as well as being significantly linked to peri-event thoughts/feelings, although other variables not tested here, e.g. individual differences, might be better at explaining posttraumatic states than event-related variables. The sample reported that safety work with a risk group, migrants, was underway and appeared to be beneficial in reducing instances of “inappropriate behaviour” during emergencies but communication difficulties were an issue and training on this matter would appear desirable. Significant differences in responses across the UK were detected and consequences for international comparisons are discussed.

“The Collection and Analysis of Data from a Fatal Large-Scale Crowd Incident”, Pretorius, M., Gwynne, S., and Galea, E.R.

This paper discusses the analysis of data-sets from observations made at the Duisburg Love Parade in 2010 and the large-scale crowd situation that ended in fatalities due to the development of crush conditions. This event is a useful case study of large crowd circulation based on the materialthat was made publically available by the organisers and attendees. The resultant data-set has been used to configure the buildingEXODUS modelto approximate the original incident in order to verify both the model’s performance and the underlying scenario assumptions; i.e. whether buildingEXODUS can reliably represent agent actions, the conditions that develop and the impact of these developments.

“Response Time Data for Large Passenger Ferries and Cruise Ships”, Brown, R., Galea, E.R., Deere, S., and Filippidis, L.


This paper outlines research that was carried-out under the EU FP7 7 project SAFEGUARD and presents three sets of passenger response time data generated from full-scale semi-unannounced assembly trials at sea.  The data sets were generated from two different types of passenger ships, a RO-PAX ferry, SuperSpeed 1 (SS1) and a cruise ship, Jewel of the Seas (JoS).  In total response times from over 2200 people were collected making it the largest response time data set ever collected — on land or sea.  The paper presents the analysis methodology used to extract the response time data and the resultant response time distributions (RTD).  A number of key findings from the data analysis will also be presented, which includes: (a) all generated RTDs are log-normal, (b) RTDs from the two SS1 trials using two different populations are very similar, (c) The combined RTD for the SS1 is almost identical to the RTD generated from the earlier published data for the same type of vessel, (d) The RTD derived for the public spaces on the JoS is significantly different to that of the SS1, (e) The RTD for public spaces and cabins are significantly different.  These findings are discussed in this paper and form the basis of a recommendation to be submitted to the International Maritime Organisation to be used to frame the next iteration of the international guidelines for ship evacuation analysis.

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Preventable Disaster in Karachi

The fire was the deadliest industrial disaster the city had ever seen.  As it raged through the garment factory, people screamed for help, trapped in the burning building, some jumped from upper floor windows to their deaths or were seriously injured. The workers in the burning garment factory had no way out, the windows were barred, the doors were locked, there was no fire alarm, no sprinklers and over 100 garment workers, many of them young people, perished.  You may be forgiven for thinking that I am describing the recent (11/09/12) tragic fire in the Karachi garment factory which so far has claimed 289 lives, but in fact I am describing a 100 year old fire inNew York City, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which claimed the lives of 146 people in 1911.  The similarity between the two tragedies is painfully clear.

The point is that in the 21st century factory workers should not be dying from these types of disasters.  The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a milestone in the development of fire safety which lead to changes such as the requirement for improved access and egress within work places and the installation of fire extinguishers, fire alarms and sprinklers.   From fires such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the countless lives lost in the battle with fire over the past 100 years, our understanding of fire and the means to combat fire has improved to the point where fires with multiple fatalities such as the Karachi factory fire should be a thing of the past.  Modern building design, fire fighting technology, regulation and enforcement should have prevented a fire in a Karachi clothing factory from becoming a disaster.

Once the blame game starts, I hope that the bereaved families do not simply point their finger at the factory owner but look beyond this, to their local government authorities that have responsibility for planning permission and building control and to enforcement authorities that have responsibility for inspecting premises.  It is too easy to simply blame the owner.  More importantly, to do so will simply allow this type of tragedy to happen again and again.

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The Fire Safety Engineering Group (FSEG) of the University of Greenwich in the UK is undertaking an international study into human factors associated with wayfinding and the interpretation of wayfinding signage.

As part of this study, FSEG have prepared an on-line questionnaire designed to help us understand how different people wayfind i.e. find their way through buildings in normal and emergency conditions. We would like as many people as possible to complete the survey, and anyone can complete the survey.

Your participation in these studies will contribute to improving our understanding of human behaviour and ultimately contribute to the design of more user friendly and safer buildings.

Please get as many of your family, friends and colleagues to complete the survey.

Thank you for your assistance.

You can find the survey on our web site at:

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FSEG YOUTUBE Channel passes 200,000 views

The FSEG YOUTUBE channel has just passed a major milestone – over 200,000 video views of FSEG featured fire research output! This has been achieved with a presence of just under 3 years on YOUTUBE – Well done to the FSEG team!

Posted in 9/11, Accident and Disaster Management, Crowd Safety, Evacaution, Fire, Ship Evacuation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Passenger Ship Evacuation Seminar – 30 November 2012

Announcing a 1 day seminar at the Royal Institution of Naval Architects concerned with Passenger Ship Evacuation presenting the results of the SAFEGUARD project.

SAFEGUARD, a 3.5 year (April 2009 — Dec 2012) EU FP7 project focusing on issues associated with the evacuation of large passenger ships, has generated more comprehensive passenger evacuation data than any other single evacuation project in history!  The project involved:

– Three passenger ships:

  • Superspeed1, Jewel of the Seas, Olympia Palace.

Superspeed 1

Olympia Palace

Jewel of the Seas

– Five semi-unannounced assembly trials, at sea involving:

  • 5,600 passengers successfully and safely assembled.
  • 5,000 infra-red tags issued to passengers
  • 100 Gb of video data collected from 246 video cameras
  • 3000 passenger questionnaires collected.
  • The assembly trial on the Jewel of the Seas involved 2304 passengers, making it the largest fully monitored assembly trial ever conducted at sea. 

Assembly on the Jewel of the Seas


–  Three ship evacuation models:

  • maritimeEXODUS, EVI, ODIGO.

–  9 research partners:

  • 2 Universities: University of Greenwich (UK) and the Memorial University (Canada)
  • 4 engineering consultancy firms: BMT (UK), Bureau Veritas (France), Principia (France), Safety @ Sea (UK).
  • 3 Shipping Lines: Color Line Marine AS (Norway), Royal Caribbean International (Finland), Minoan Lines Shipping SA (Greece).

FSEG and other project partners will be presenting the main findings from project SAFEGUARD at a 1 day seminar at the Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA) Head Quarters in central London.  The seminar will address the following key questions:

  • Do we really know that cruise ships and passenger ferries can safely evacuate passengers in an emergency?
  • How do “real” passengers actually react in an evacuation?
  • Can we be certain that the current passenger evacuation simulation software is realistic?
  • How can we improve current IMO guidelines concerning the assessment of ship evacuation capabilities?

The seminar will present the work of SAFEGUARD and discuss suggested modifications to the IMO MSC Circ 1238 arising from the project.

The content of the seminar is as follows:

  • Background on ship evacuation issues.
  • Introduction to the SAFEGUARD project, methodology, description of the three shipping companies and the ships investigated.
  • Enhanced Benchmark Scenarios and model performance and recommendations to IMO MSC.
  • Response time data set: data collection, the data sets, implications to IMO MSC.
  • Validation data sets: data collection, the data sets, the model performances, and the recommendations to IMO MSC.
  • Heel Benchmark: Rationale, the benchmark, the model performances and the recommendations to IMO MSC.
  • Fire Benchmark: Rationale, the benchmark, the model performances and the recommendations to IMO MSC.

Places are limited, so it is recommended that you register early.  Full details and online registration can be found at the RINA web site at:

SEMINAR DATE: 30 November 2012

SEMINAR LOCATION: RINA Head Quarters; 10 Upper Belgrave Street; London SW1X 8BQ; UK

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Storing Petrol at Home

Given the recent UK government advice concerning storing petrol at home it is worth reviewing the legal and safety advice related to domestic storage of flammable fuels.

The storage of petrol or diesel at home is potentially a very dangerous practice.  If you do feel the need to store fuel at home it should be kept in a detached garage or shed.  The reason is obvious, if you have a fire in your house the fire can be accelerated by stored fuels.   Leaking fuels can also cause a fire so its best if it is not kept in living spaces. 

The law allows you to store a maximum of 15 litres of petrol in no more than two approved metal containers, or ten litres in two plastic containers. Neither plastic container should be of more than five litres’ capacity.  Approved containers are marked and approved for petrol storage and fitted with a secure cap to prevent leakage of liquid and fuel vapours.

Fuel can only be stored in a secured, locked shed or a garage. Garages should be detached from the house or separated by a fire door if it is adjoining. Fuel MUST not be stored within any living areas of your house.

Be smart and keep safe.

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The threatened March petrol strike in the UK: did the public panic? And the importance of messaging.

In the closing days of March, the UK print and electronic media are full of stories of panic petrol buying by members of the public fearful of a possible petrol delivery drivers’ strike only days before the traditional Easter getaway.    Was the behaviour of the public an example of large scale panic, or simply a rational response to government messaging?

A key interview that sparked much of the public behaviour was given by Francis Maude, a UK Cabinet Office minister, to SKY NEWS on the 28 March 2012.  You can find the interview on YOUTUBE at:

Francis Maude, who has been chairing meetings with government colleagues to plan the government response to the threatened strike, made the following comments outside Number 10 Downing Street:

 “….to the extent that people can get some petrol in their cars some fuel in their cars, as and when, no desperate hurry, because as I say the union hasn’t given notice and they have to give seven days notice, that is going to help.”

The minister made it clear that the strike had not yet been called, and that there would need to be seven days notice of a strike.  However, he also made the point that it would be a good idea for the public to get some petrol in their cars.  This is clearly a message to the public that it would be a good idea to ensure that their cars were topped up with fuel.  He went on to say,

“All we can say is that we need to make sure people know this is happening; it’s up to people to make their own decisions; there is no need for rushing around in a mad dash, this is not about to happen tomorrow.”

The minister reiterates that the potential strike is not going to happen in the next day or so, thereby informing the public that there is no immediate threat, but then goes on to say,

“….as and when, when it makes sense a bit of extra fuel in the jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take.”

Fill those jerry cans - just doing what the minister suggested.

Following government advice

Here the minister directly contradicts himself by encouraging the public, not only to make sure that they have topped up their cars with fuel, but to stock-pile petrol in their garages, even though there is no immediate threat of a strike taking place in the next seven days.  The storage of petrol by the general public in their garages is not normal behaviour.  Indeed, it is very unsafe behaviour, which is discouraged by fire and rescue services as domestic fires fuelled by petrol can become extremely dangerous.  However, despite there being no immediate threat of a strike and hence shortage of petrol for the next seven days, the minister is encouraging the public to stock-pile petrol supplies at their homes.  The minister attempted to clarify the government’s position by adding:

“People need to make their own decision, all we can do is make sure they know what is potentially in the offing, we hope the strike won’t happen …but we do want the public to be aware that there is a risk and that we are making contingency plans to keep essential and emergency services going, and we think that the public should be aware of this risk so that in the ordinary course of their business they can take what ever steps, everyone chooses and takes responsibility for themselves; that’s all we can do.  We are not advising people that they should do this or that, we are pointing out what the possibilities are and pointing out things that they might chose to do if they want to…”

So the message to the public was that your course of action is up to you.  However, in this context, a senior government minister, standing outside Number 10, is a highly authoritative source of advice likely to have influence with the public and it was made clear that the government were already taking measures to ensure that their vehicles would be able to function during a potential strike.  Furthermore, the actions that the public can take to prepare for the strike, should it happen are, top up your cars and stock-pile petrol at home in your garage!

Panic or following instructions?

The messaging from this senior government official, while admittedly not clear, strongly suggested a course of action that the public should follow.   On the one hand the government does not want to be responsible for the actions taken by the public, while on the other hand the government is providing thinly veiled advice to top-up and stock-pile.

If we now put this situation into the context of the upcoming Easter four-day weekend — nine days away at the time — is it little wonder that the public queued at petrol stations to fill up their fuel tanks and jerry cans?   I would not describe this as panic buying, but a rational response to a senior government minister’s advice.   The situation is also self perpetuating, as members of the public see people queuing for fuel, and the media report of petrol stations going dry, more and more people are encouraged to queue for fuel.   This is not panic, but a rationale response to government messaging fuelled by behavioural feedback.

This is yet another example of the incorrect usage of the word ‘panic’ by the media and the public.  It is also an example of the power and importance of messaging in potential crisis situations.  This situation demonstrates what can be achieved by messaging, and how it is possible for an authoritative source to influence the behaviour of the public through messaging.   The challenge is to be clear about your communication objectives and get the messaging, messenger and timing right to achieve them. 

Messaging can also be a powerful tool in accident and disaster management.  In voice-based building fire alarm systems, the correct messaging — again from an authoritative source — can decrease occupant response times, encouraging occupants to start their evacuation.  In large-scale disaster situations, messaging can be used to positively influence the public’s behaviour in ways that may appear to be counter intuitive e.g. advice to seek shelter when the natural response would be to evacuate or visa versa.

Did the messaging provided by Francis Maude achieve the government’s objectives? To answer this question it is essential to know what those objectives were.  I’ll leave it to the politically-minded to decide.

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Comments on the Costa Concordia Grounding 13 January 2012. Part 3: Repercussions for Passenger Ship Safety — written by Prof Ed Galea, 20 January 2012 18:15

As in most disasters of this type, so soon after the incident, information concerning the nature of this incident is far too sketchy to draw any firm conclusions.  Indeed, at the time of writing there are more questions than answers.  In my next few blogs I would like to make a few general comments related to issues associated with ship evacuation, and based on media accounts, attempt to put together a picture of what we currently know.  Finally, I would like to make some tentative comments about the incident and its repercussions for passenger ship safety.  

In the third and final blog in this series I want to raise some questions about the Costa Concordia incident and discuss the repercussions for passenger ship safety.

1) This incident shows that a disaster can happen hours after a ship leaves port. So should the mandatory assembly drill be completed prior to leaving port rather than having the option of doing it within 24 hours of embarkation? 

The Costa Concordia disaster couldn’t have happened at a worse time.  Most if not all of the passengers who boarded at Civitavecchia would have been new to the ship.  It takes passengers some time to get accustomed to the layout of a large cruise ship.  It may take days before the passengers know their way around.  Even figuring out if you are walking forward (towards the front) or aft (towards the rear) of the ship when in one of the long corridors can be difficult.  On top of this, not having experienced the emergency assembly drill means that new passengers (especially those new to cruise ships) would not know what the process was to abandon ship and that there was an assembly phase, what the signal was to commence the assembly phase, where their assembly station was located, where their lifejacket was kept and how to don their lifejacket.  All of this will add to the confusion associated with the assembly process.  Not having conducted the assembly drill prior to leaving port is likely to have contributed to the reported confusion during the evacuation of the Costa Concordia.  

In my opinion, the drill must be undertaken prior to leaving port.  IMO should review this requirement as soon as possible.

2) Given that there would have been other officers on the bridge of the Costa Concordia, why didn’t anyone stop the Captain from taking the ship off course and dangerously close to the Island of Gigilo? 

Is there an issue with the culture onboard ships that makes it impossible for junior officers to question the Captain’s decisions regarding the safety of the passengers and vessel?  A similar situation existed in aviation where first officers felt it was not appropriate to highlight potential problems with decisions made by the Captain which may impact the safety of the passengers and the aircraft.  This is believed to have contributed to several accidents in the past but the aviation industry, on the whole, has now addressed this problem.  

The aviation industry addressed the problem through the introduction of a process known as Crew Resource Management or CRM.  The process relies on the flight deck crew working as a team.  No single person has all the anwers and things can be overlooked by one person and picked up by another.  At the end of the day it is still up to the Captain to make the decision (on an aircraft or on a ship), but it is useful to have a helpful team that are not afraid to bring things to his/her attention.  It involves junior officers being prepared to :
State their concern
State the problem as they interpret it
Suggest a solution
Seek confirmation

Is there a problem with bridge culture on large passenger ships?  IMO should review the situation.

3) Assuming that the Channel 4 timeline is correct and there was 90 minutes between hitting the rocks and heeling over (see blog 2), could the Costa Concordia have been safely evacuated?  

With the ship upright, a calm and orderly assembly may have required 40 to 60 minutes.  With the abandonment process requiring 30 minutes in ideal conditions, all the passengers and crew could have abandoned the ship in 60 to 75 minutes.  This assumes that the call to abandon the ship is made at 30 to 45 minutes into the assembly process.  With 60 to 75 minutes estimated to be required to abandon the ship, the Captain had a 15 to 30 minute window in which to decide to start the assembly process. 

Taking the lower limit of these time estimations, the evacuation could have followed the following timeline:

  0 min — ship hits rock, Captain starts assembly phase

30 min — Captain starts abandonment phase

40 min — Assembly phase completed, 40 min after ship hits the rocks

60 min — Abandonment completed 30 min after the start of the abandonment phase.

This minimum timeline requires the Captain to start the assembly process immediately the ship struck the rocks and assumes that the assembly process is completed in the minimum practical time.

Taking the upper limit of these time estimations, the evacuation could have followed the following timeline:

 0 min — ship hits rock

15 min — Captain starts assembly phase

60 min — Captain starts abandonment phase

75 min — Assembly phase completed, 60 min after start of assembly phase

90 min — Abandonment completed, 30 min after the start of the abandonment phase.

On this basis it is conceivable that the ship could have been safely evacuated prior to it healing over.  But it would have required the Captain to have started the assembly process within 15 minutes of hitting the rocks and the abandonment phase within 60 minutes of hitting the rocks. 

4) It appears that it may have been possible to complete the evacuation before the ship started to heel over, so given the severity of the situation:

Why didn’t the Captain start the assembly phase earlier then he did?

While there is a lot going on in the initial minutes of such an incident, it would have been prudent for the Captain to have commenced a precautionary assembly as early as possible.  In general, there are many reasons why a Captain may hesitate in starting an assembly.  This is not an easy call; the last thing that a Captain and a ship owner wants is to ruin the first night and the first dinner of the cruise with a false alarm.  Imagine how upset the passengers and the ship owners would be if it turned out to be a false alarm or not as serious a situation as first thought!  What type of satisfaction ratings would the passengers give the Captain and crew if it were a false alarm?  What if a passenger was injured during a needless assembly?  Not an easy call, but with the safety of everyone on board at stake, it is a call that has to be made without fear of repercussions if wrong.  The safety culture of an organisation must reflect this type of approach.

5) As it appears to have been possible to complete the evacuation before the ship started to heel over, so given the severity of the situation:

Why didn’t the Captain start the abandonment phase earlier then he did?

It is noted that at this stage it is not even clear if the Captain did give the order to start the abandonment phase.  Nevertheless, according to the Channel 4 timeline, 73 minutes elapse between hitting the rocks and the command to abandon ship. From the media accounts, passengers who had assembled with their lifejackets were waiting to board the lifeboats.  Clearly, passengers were ready to board the lifeboats much earlier in the evacuation sequence. Doubtless, this delay contributed to the unrest reported by some passengers in the assembly area.  The delay in issuing the order to abandon ship will have made the job of the crew in the assembly areas significantly more difficult then it needed to be.  It also possibly contributed to the reported criticism of the crew in the assembly areas, by passengers who blamed the crew for delaying the abandonment process.  

6) The crew on the Costa Concordia had a tough job managing the assembly and abandonment process, a job made all the tougher by the delay in starting the evacuation process.  How can crew be better trained in handling the assembly process?

The crew undergo training in the assembly process usually without passengers present.  This is to ensure that they know where to go and what their duties are.  In addition, crew take part in the mandatory assembly drill for passengers, usually prior to departure.  While this is primarily a training event for the passengers, the crew also get to interact with passengers during a mass assembly process and so they get to experience what it may be like in an ideal evacuation.  However, the process could be made more realistic by having an unannounced drill — where the passengers and crew do not know when the drill will take place. 

As mentioned in blog 1 of this series, FSEG, my research group, are involved in an EU FP7 project called SAFEGUARD (see paper 252 at  As part of project SAFEGUARD we have performed five semi-unannounced ship assemblies at sea.  We wanted the assembly drill to be a surprise to the passengers and crew so that it would more closely resemble a real situation.  While the passengers knew that they would participate in an unannounced assembly drill after they had left port, they did not know when this would occur.  We had a lot of opposition from the industry at first.  The main issue that was raised was that the trial we proposed would be no different from what they normally do i.e. the announced drill along side and so would not produce anything that was not already well known.  They essentially wanted us to base our analysis on the normal assembly trials.  This is clearly nonsense since in the normal assembly drill, passengers are warned in advance of the exact timing of the assembly drill.  The passengers are even reminded 10 minutes before the drill takes place that the drill will start soon. As a result, many passengers pre-empt the drill and collect lifejackets and head off to the assembly stations prior to the commencement of the drill.  Anyone who has experienced a cruise will know precisely what I mean.  

As a result, many of the people are either already in the assembly station or in their cabins waiting for the drill to start.  While the passengers still have to find the assembly station, they do not experience an assembly with all the passengers trying to find their cabins and their assembly station at the same time.  So they do not experience the levels of congestion and organised chaos this produces — an experience not too dissimilar to what may occur in a real emergency assembly in ideal conditions.  Perhaps of more importance, the crew do not experience these conditions.  I am happy to say that we did eventually find three ship companies that were prepared to get involved and run the unannounced drills.  Without exception, the assembly process took considerably longer than is usually experienced when done alongside.  In most cases the assembly times produced by the unannounced drills at sea took about twice as long as the announced alongside drills.  Also, the ships officers and crew were particularly appreciative of the experience as they had never experienced anything like it before, in particular the numbers of passengers all moving at the same time, not knowing where to go, requiring guidance, it really put their training and their procedures to the test.  Without exception, everyone involved learnt some valuable lessons about the assembly process and what they may face in a real emergency assembly. 

It would not be practical or desirable for a cruise ship to run all their standard assembly drills as unannounced drills.   However, given the added training value it offers, it may be useful to require cruise ships to run some of their drills using this approach.  I suggest that IMO should consider making running a limited number of unannounced drills mandatory for cruise ship operators.

7) Should the IMO MSC Circ 1238 evacuation benchmark scenarios be more demanding?

Project SAFEGUARD (see item 6) is aimed at improving the current evacuation analysis process used to certify large passenger ships.  As part of this process it is conducting unannounced assembly trials at sea to collect more realistic data to utilise in the certification analysis such as the response times of passengers i.e. how long it takes passengers to react to the call to assemble.  In addition, SAFEGUARD is also collecting full assembly time data which will be used to validate and test the software tools used to simulate ship evacuation.  Perhaps of greater interest, SAFEGUARD is developing additional challenging benchmark scenarios to be investigated as part of the evacuation certification process.  These include a fire scenario and a scenario involving heel. Both fire and heel are serious hazards during ship evacuation and are currently excluded from the certification evacuation analysis.  By the time project SAFEGUARD is due to be completed (December 2012) it is hoped that several position papers will be produced and submitted to IMO for their consideration.

8) Why did the Costa Concordia heel over to the starboard side revealing the gash on the port side of the vessel?

I am not a naval architect but I am somewhat puzzled as to how the Costa Concordia has ended up.  The gash to her side is on the port side of the vessel.  So she would have been taking on water on her port side causing the ship to heel to the port side and eventually overturn onto her port side.  However she has overturned onto the starboard side revealing the gash on the port side.  How did this happen?  Was it the result of actions of the crew who tried to flood the starboard side to keep the ship in balance, was it the action of beaching, or was she holed again during the beaching, this time on her starboard side?  

Hopefully the inquiry into this incident will reveal what happened and why it happened.  It’s a little too easy to simply heap the blame on one individual.  It is hoped that from this tragic incident lessons will be learned that will lead to the improved safety of those who take to the sea.

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