Control and confidence help drive emergency response behaviors

Date Posted: 10/30/2023
Close up of fire alarm

Since emergency situations require immediate action, training for emergencies should deliver a programmed response. Knowing what to do provides a sense of control and confidence. Unfortunately, classroom training may not suffice, especially if it doesn’t explain why certain actions are critical.

In the book The Unthinkable, author Amanda Ripley noted that people either accept the possibility of an emergency, or they assume it won’t happen to them. If they think it won’t happen, they probably don’t create a mental plan, don’t pay attention to training, and won’t respond very well.

In emergencies like a fire or active shooter situation, the most common responses are to freeze or enter a state of denial. Thinking, “what is happening?” and “what should I do?” will delay a reaction. Providing repetitive training of specific, familiar steps to follow will provide the confidence people need to act quickly.

Explain why and practice

Understanding the reason for the specific actions described in training can help individuals recognize the importance of those reactions. Failing to explain the “why” may cause people to ignore the training.

For example, airline safety briefings explain that if oxygen masks drop, passengers should secure their own mask before helping others. The reason is that at 35,000 feet, passengers could lose consciousness in 20 seconds. Not securing one’s own mask first could result in the inability to help others.

Hands-on practice securing a mask would also improve responses. In 2018, an engine exploded on a flight from New York to Dallas, breaking a window and causing oxygen masks to drop. Many passengers placed the masks over their mouths but not their noses. They were told how to secure the masks, but they never practiced (or didn’t pay attention to the training).

Similarly, active shooter training says to leave personal items behind. During an emergency, many people try to gather belongings. Many survivors of the 9/11 attack reported spending several minutes gathering personal items before evacuating, and those delays could have been fatal. Individuals who think, “I’ll just grab my phone,” could easily start thinking, “And my keys. And my jacket.”

Also, airline safety talks tell passengers to leave carry-on bags when evacuating, but survivors of plane crashes report that many people collect their bags even while the cabin fills with toxic smoke. The resulting delays cost lives. Physical practice with repetition helps build confidence and familiarity, allowing a faster and focused response.

Acknowledge risk and make a plan

Airline passengers who read the safety card are more likely to survive a crash. Reading the card helps build familiarity, but does reading the card make a difference? Very likely, someone who takes time to read the card already accepted the potential for an emergency and started creating a mental response. When an emergency happens, they know what to do and their response is more focused.

Perhaps they understood the seriousness and determined to take responsibility for their reaction (control) by building a mental plan (familiarity). When the emergency occurred, they were confident in how to react.

Some takeaways for emergency response trainers might include:

  • Explain why the training describes specific actions, like leaving personal items behind.
  • Discuss common reactions of untrained persons. Thinking “it won’t happen” can result in denial, freezing, gathering, or other delays that could be fatal.
  • Training and repetition build confidence and familiarity for taking action. Recognizing “it could happen” and rehearsing a mental response plan could save lives.
  • Conduct drills or hands-on training when possible. Classroom or online training could include encouraging visualization and mental planning.

How Safety Management Suite Can Help

Employers need emergency plans in place before they start training employees how to respond. The Plans & Policies tool in the J. J. Keller® SAFETY MANAGEMENT SUITE offers numerous plan templates that employers can modify as needed, including a number of emergency response topics. Remember to update the plans with any changes to the work environment or the nature of potential threats.

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