Living in and commuting to big cities, large technical parks, and going to other locations where large gatherings of people occur can present a challenge during an emergency. These places are sometimes not built to safely evacuate people during an emergency.
There are, however, a few things we can do to both help ourselves and other people during an emergency.
In this article, I’ll talk about critical emergency situations only, like a fire, a terrorist attack, or an active shooter. I’ll mention at the end some of the things that can be done during a less dangerous (for your person) emergency, such as a fellow commuter suffering a heart attack, or a car crash.
In a confined or enclosed environment, both the emergency/situation itself and the people trying to flee from it are the dangers. A stampede of people can be even more dangerous than the event that set it off. In cases where a large number of people are rapidly moving away from something, chances are these people will be panicking, and if you try to follow them and fall, or be in their way, you might end up being run over by them. I’ve seen this happen often after a terrorist attack on the streets or cafe. There were several casualties, but in the ensuing chaos, several more people were injured, not from the blast or debris, but from the panicking people running over each other.
I know it’s counter intuitive but, if you are unharmed, in cases where you are either in a confined environment, or a place with many people and narrow exits or avenues of escape, do not immediately follow the crowd. Try to reach the outer periphery of the stampede. Focus on getting to a place where at least on one side there aren’t any running people. Focus on assessing the situation, trying to understand what happened, and what’s the best course of action for your safety. Maybe running with the crowd isn’t the best, they would be going into another enclosed location, where smoke, fire, or a secondary explosive device can be waiting. Maybe taking those few seconds to observe can give you a better understanding of an exit strategy. Sometimes people are so focused on the running that they don’t see a possible better escape route right in front of them.
One way to practice this is visualization. If you commute often to the same place, imagine that place on fire, or during an explosion. Imagine the avenues people would try to take to escape, often in panic, and then imagine where would you go. What places offer protection both from the crowd and possible threats (like fire or a shooter), imagine how you’d get there, and once you are there, what are the escape routes you can see. Walk to those places you imagined, and observe all around. Build a mental map of the area, and the muscle memory of what you’d do.
Whether it’s an actual office, a cubicle farm, a more modern open space, or a shared rent-a-space location, we spend a lot of time in the office. These locations can have the same issues described above, but they also have their own challenges, such as dealing with disgruntled employees trying to cause harm.
The office space has some advantages and disadvantages. You have more places to go and observe before taking action, however the same features that offer protection, or at least a good concealment to see what to do next, can be an obstacle when actually trying to escape. For this reason, it is a good idea to have a plan and train (either by visualization or by actually going through the plan) how to deal with different emergencies.
Many offices have people trained in what to do with fire and other similar situations, but do you know the plan? Do you know what to do in cases of an active shooter? Do you know if your office is ready for this? Do you know if your security personnel are aware of people with needs (like people in wheelchairs, or that can walk that fast), and where they are located? Create a program that enables volunteers to be the safety responsible person and help evacuate those in need.
There are many things you can do to help save yourself and those around you in case of an emergency in an office space. Again, similar to those things that you’d do in a public space, but in this case you need to factor more obstacles, stairs, confined spaces, and smaller exit ways.
One thing I want to mention: in cases of an active shooter, try to run, and call the police once you are out. If you can’t run, take cover and help those around you to take cover. Finally, if you can’t hide, fight. Fight with all you have.
More often than not, the emergencies you will encounter are not life or death, or do not involve you. Things like someone in the street suffering a health related issue, or a vehicle crash near you.
In these cases you can help when possible, if you have the training and the means. You can call those who can help, like EMTs and the police. And you can choose to step away and let those trained do their job.
Whatever you choose to do, be aware of the people around you, what they are trying to do, and how they are reacting. All it takes is a few panicked people to scream, and a simple thing can turn into a major emergency. Try to remain calm, and calm those around you.
When in doubt, develop the situation. Understand what’s going on, remain calm, and try to move towards a safer location.