Many serious misunderstandings undermine confidence that people behave in a constructive let alone consistent or even predictable fashion under emergency conditions. Over the past 30 years, researchers have undertaken a good deal of study in an effort to characterise the actions taken by people in fire situations. Yet much of what is known about what people do has not yet been linked to the emerging understanding of how people gain and use expertise.
No other single area of fire-related human behaviour research has received as much attention as the study of what individuals do in a fire situation. Much of this research has focused on environmental and social influences on human behaviour. Yet our understanding of how individuals process information from their social and physical environments in fire situations remains rather limited. Nevertheless, a reasonably clear understanding of what people tend to do or not do in fire situations has emerged. People confronted with information about a fire situation will usually do any one of the following things:
- Take no action (ignore or fail to recognise cues)
- Wait for additional information (recognise cue)
- Investigate or explore the situation
- Warn others
- Instruct others
- Withdraw (flight)
- Evacuate (escape)
- Fight fire
- Freeze (fail to respond)
Understanding which action individuals will take in response to any particular cue or cues is a bit trickier than identifying what options exist. Each of these actions presents a myriad of opportunities for more decisions and more choices present themselves at each point along the way.
Understanding how people process information about fires is crucial to helping design buildings, evacuation schemes, training programmes and fire safety systems to ensure people are not harmed by a fire before they can take actions to safeguard themselves or others.
Avoiding untoward or undesirable responses to fire cues, such as adults retrieving valuables or children hiding in closets or other seemingly 'safe' places, requires planning and preparation. Preparing people to respond constructively in a fire situation by developing and practising evacuation procedures — whether at home or at work — will help ensure that the right decisions are made if and when the time comes.