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Researchers study crowd behaviour during campus “emergency”

Student volunteers (in orange) prepare to go through a decontamination shower as part of an emergency response exercise on campus

University of Sussex psychologists joined forces at the weekend (17-18 November) with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to stage an emergency response exercise involving over 100 student volunteers.

The “emergency” was part of a PhD research project examining crowd behaviour during incidents involving mass casualty decontamination. 

Around 110 Sussex students went through a decontamination process, of the type which might be used in response to the release of a suspected chemical, biological or radiological agent.

Researchers gave the students varying degrees of communication about the decontamination procedures and observed how they responded.

Doctoral student Holly Carter carried out the research for her PhD, supervised by Dr John Drury who is an expert in crowd behaviour.

Holly explains: “Previous research has shown that if emergency responders do not communicate effectively with members of the public, this can result in non-compliance and anxiety.

“Current decontamination guidance for emergency responders  needs further insights on how to communicate with members of the public during these types of incidents.

“By exploring the impact of different communication strategies on the behaviour of volunteer ‘casualties’, the results of my study will help to inform how emergency responders manage the decontamination process.”

The Health Protection Agency has an interest in this research because of its role of providing advice, support and training to the emergency services and other responders to health emergencies in England with the support of the Department of Health.

Volunteers were divided into three groups and presented with an emergency scenario. Each group was then taken outside by emergency responders to decontamination tents where they disrobed into orange ponchos before going through a warm decontamination shower.

Depending on which group they were in, volunteers experienced one of three levels of communication: poor communication, where limited information was provided and emergency responders offered little assistance; baseline communication, reflecting how the emergency responders currently manage the decontamination process; and good communication, where frequent, informative and practical information was provided, and emergency responders provided as much assistance as the volunteers required.Lancaster House and York House served as scenes for the incident.

The outcomes of the trial will be published by the HPA and will help inform how the emergency services in the UK train for and respond to emergencies.

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Posted on behalf of: School of Psychology
Last updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2012