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Risky Decisions and Risk Communications in Real-World Emergency Evacuations

Wednesday 6 February 2019, 14:00-15:00
1.05 Charles Thackrah
Natalie van der Wal
Who can attend
Staff, students, alumni and external guests


Fires, terrorist attacks, and other threats require emergency evacuations.  Faster evacuations during emergencies could save more lives. Policy makers therefore seek to improve emergency evacuation preparedness, in case of fires, terrorist attacks, and other threats. However, people may engage in behaviors that undermine the effectiveness of emergency evacuations, thus putting themselves and others at risk. I will present my most current work in which we took risk research out of the lab to characterize risky decisions and risk communications in the context of real-world emergency evacuations. We collected 126 videos of real-world emergency evacuations during fires, terror attacks, and other threats. The videos of these emergency evacuations were filmed by members of the general public, CCTV cameras, tv news crews, and others. We identified risky behaviors and risk communications and situational variables such as the visibility of the threat. The most common risky behavior pertained to slow initiation of evacuation due to for example, collecting items before evacuating and confusion about whether the emergency was real or not.  We identified risk communications, such as the sounding of an alarm, having staff guide people out, and making a live or pre-recorded announcement. Our analyses suggested that the most effective risk communications for reducing risky evacuation behaviors included announcements or staff guiding people out.  Especially when threats were not visible, alarms alone were often ineffective and had to be combined with either announcements or staff guiding people out. We will discuss our findings in light of research in risk perception and communication, and suggest improved guidelines for emergency communication that will ultimately save lives.

About the speaker

Natalie van der Wal is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Centre for Decision Research, Leeds University Business School. Her mission is to improve safety by preventing risky crowd behaviours during emergency situations. She aims for evidence-based technology improving safety and security. She is specialised in the computational modelling of cognitive and affective processes in groups as well as evidence-based emergency communication research. Her current project ‘EVACUATION’ aims to improve speed and survival in emergency evacuations, through the combined insights from agent-based computer modelling, risk communication/decision research, and an advisory board of emergency responders. This project follows her previous European H2020 project ‘IMPACT’, in which she determined the role of culture on emergency prevention and management. She works with professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin in the Centre for Decision Research and the Leeds University Business School. Previously she worked as an Assistant Professor at the dept. of Computer Science, Vrije Universiteit, NL, a Senior Research Fellow at the Socio-Technical Centre of the Leeds University Business School, UK, and as a Researcher at CAMS Forcevision, Royal Dutch Navy, NL.