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New research to examine crowd panic in emergencies

* 26 November 2003 *

New research to examine crowd panic in emergencies

Research at the University of Sussex into crowd behaviour in emergencies such as nightclub fires and stadium accidents has won grant funding worth more than £180,000.

Psychologist Dr John Drury will examine how crowds react during emergency evacuations. The study has proved timely in the light of a series of recent tragedies, most notably in the United States, and because of the continuing global terror alert.

The research, funded by a grant awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is of perennial importance, though, to those responsible for emergency procedures and crowd control, be it in stadia, railway stations, shopping centres, concert halls or cinemas.

The collective 'panic' often referred to in emergency situations, as evidenced in crushes and the jamming of doors as people compete to escape, has been blamed for deaths at a number of public venues.

Until recently, the prevailing theory has been that a collective panic is the usual response during mass emergency evacuations, resulting in death by crushing or suffocation as people compete to get to an exit. Much of the evidence, however, challenges this theory, says Dr Drury. "Such individualised, selfish and collectively ineffective behaviours are in fact uncommon. Indeed, in many evacuating crowds there is clear evidence of altruism, mutual, helping behaviour and effective coordination, even in personally life-threatening situations."

Dr Drury intends to determine the conditions under which mass evacuation becomes collective co-ordination rather than panic. "The suggestion is that the experience and behaviours exhibited by people in emergency mass evacuations depends on the extent to which they see themselves as belonging to a group. In an escape situation, crowd members with little sense of group membership are more likely to see and treat each other as competitors, and engage in selfish behaviours that hinder the exit of the crowd as a whole (through door-blocking etc). But where a sense of shared membership is high - where 'an injury to you is an injury to me' - people are more likely to show consideration and helping behaviour that will allow the crowd to exit in a more coordinated and effective manner," says Dr Drury.

The research, including interviews and laboratory experiments, will also involve an innovative virtual reality simulation, to be carried out in collaboration with the Department of Engineering at the University of Nottingham, where techniques are being developed for simulating crowd flow on computers. The research is due to begin in April 2004.

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