Sunday, 27 January 2013

Don't blame Brazilian nightclub fire on 'panic'

So far, 232 have been confirmed dead and over 170 hospitalised in the tragic fire that happened in the Kiss  nightclub in Santa Maria, Southern Brazil. Coverage of the incident by the BBC reports that a fire started after a band was using pyrotechnics on stage, and it quickly spread through the packed nightclub which seems to have had only one working exit. The report also states that;
'Many victims reportedly inhaled toxic fumes or were crushed as panicking clubbers tried to escape'
and a local fire chief is reported as saying;
"People started panicking and ended up treading on each other"

I can believe that asphyxia from smoke inhalation was a major contributing factor in the majority of the fatalities, but I have problems accepting that 'panic' was also to blame, and worry that going into such a narrative has worrying implications that may deflect possible culpability for this tragedy. Studies of behaviour in many different fatal fires (e.g. Canter 1990; Chertkoff & Kushigian 1999) have shown that the idea of panicking and/or stampeding crowds in emergencies is largely a myth, and that social norms (such as queueing, and helping others who fall over) usually endure even in the most deadly situations. Chertkoff & Kushigian (1999) also make the point, that using 'panic' to describe victims behaviour has been used after previous tragedies to deflect blame from the management of venues who were negligent in their safety procedures. We need to find out more information about this awful tragedy, but I think serious questions need to be asked about the safety risks of this and any future events. The combination of using pyrotechnics in a packed venue with only one working exit needs to be looked at before we slip into using lazy definitions of 'panic' to describe such tragedies that are rarely supported by later detailed investigation of what actually happened 

Canter, D (Ed.) (1990) Fires and human behaviour. London: David Fulton.
Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT: Praeger,

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Sussex road protests- quiet victories vs noisy 'defeats'

As I write this in the evening of Jan 16th, bailiffs and police have ended their first day of attempts to evict protestors from the Combe Haven protest camp that was set up in protest against the Bexhill to Hastings link road. There has been a fair deal of media coverage of this campaign (e.g. by Susanne Rustin in the Guardian and the BBC's Roger Harrabin), which has drawn parallels with the anti-roads protests in the UK in the 1990s, reminding me of how I got interested in the study of crowd behaviour.

I started off as an idealistic 20 something protesting against the M3 motorway through Twyford Down in Hampshire in 1992-3, and then progressed to the campaign against the M11 link road in East London, where John Drury was doing his PhD in psychological change. I was doing an MSc in Environmental Psychology at the time (I remember trying to finish an essay on the edge of the Police cordon at the final eviction!) and decided to do a PhD in the psychology of climate change and how to encourage effective individual and collective environmental action. Part of my research involved an ethnographic study of the direct action campaign against the Newbury bypass  from 1996-9, which involved living and participating with the protestors who had set up camp in the path of the proposed road while openly observing them.

What I thought was interesting about these direct action protests was that protestors often invested a lot of time and resources into making it as difficult as possible for them to be evicted from their camps (such as building tree-houses, and tunnels which required the intervention of highly paid bailiff climbers and tunnelers), and there were some spectacular evictions that went on for days before all protestors were removed. However, the camps were all eventually cleared of protestors and the roads completed (although often costing far more than the initial projected budget). Nevertheless, this did not stop the protestors considering that they had won significant victories, and very few reported to me that they felt they had been 'defeated'. Instead, they would talk about how they felt that the costs of the protests would put off contractors taking on future road projects, and how they had successfully raised public awareness of more general environmental issues such as climate change.

I think that the frequent unwillingness of protestors to consider such events as a defeat is more than just a form of cognitive dissonance to re-frame their perceptions of events (as I talked about in a previous post), and that from the noisy 'defeats' of camp evictions, quiet victories would often emerge. For instance, scores of other road projects were quietly shelved in the early to mid 1990s (from an initial £21 billion budget announced in 1992) as the costs of policing the protests and hiring private security rocketed. General public awareness of the link between car-use and climate change also increased as a result of the huge publicity the protests generated. Furthermore, the campaigns rarely ended after the evictions had finished, with some (such as Twyford Down) seeing much larger protests after all the trees and wildlife had been cleared and construction of the road proper began. This sentiment is reflected in the press release put out by the Combe Haven protestors today;
'This is only the end of the beginning for the protests against the Bexhill Hastings Link Road (BHLR)!'

I talked about these ideas in a paper with John Drury, where we explored the concept of generalisation of efficacy amongst protestors, and found that percieved efficacy of their actions was measured in different ways, ranging from individual to collective, and from local to global issues. Furthermore, short term set-backs did not necessarily put them off from continuing to protest, nor did it prevent them feeling a strong sense of both personal and collective efficacy in their actions. Therefore, however much the contractors and Police may hope that these evictions will spell the end of the protests, I suspect that they won't and we may see more similar protests in future, especially if other controversial road schemes are announced.  

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Ivory Coast 'stampede'

It's still unclear what caused the New Year's Eve stadium tragedy in the Ivory Coast that has so far killed at least 61 people, but the media are already speculating as to what happened. A report by the BBC has suggested two possible explanations: first, that a group of youths with knives were robbing people, which caused crowd 'panic' and a subsequent stampede, and secondly that the security forces mismanaged the situation as people left the stadium and allowed a fatal crowd crush to develop.

We need to find out more information about this tragedy, but I find the second explanation much more plausible, and I would guess that what may have happened was that a surge of people leaving the stadium met another crowd in the city centre going in a different direction creating a fatal crush. I would also predict that the majority of fatalities would be due to asphyxiation rather than being trampled by others.

There are some very rare situations where densely packed crowds move quickly to escape a threat, and if someone falls over, a domino effect can happen (where other crowd members topple over people on the ground). This happened in the Bethnal Green station tragedy in wartime London in 1943, where 173 people died as they were going down the stairs to the undergound to shelter from an air-raid. However, this usually happens because people are not physically able to stop themselves becaue of the crowd pressure, and if people are able to help each other, they will do so (Johnson, 1987).  A paper I recently wrote (Cocking, 2013) looked at what happens when crowds scatter in the face of Police attacks. I argued that rather than people 'panicking' as they fled mounted and/or baton charges, they actually showed consideration for others and co-operated where possible (such as picking up people who fell over), and tended to become more psychologically united as a result (rather than dispersing).
On a wider point, I think we should avoid using terms such as 'panic' and 'stampede' to describe tragedies like these, as they rarely reflect what happens in mass emergencies. Furthermore, the idelogical baggage that they represent (that crowds are inherently 'irrational', and so in some way to blame for any disasters) also hinders proper investigation of what  actually happened, and may delay or obscure the proper accountability of those who are responsible for such tragedies by not taking crowd safety mismanagement seriously. This was apparent with recent revelations about the Hillsborough disaster, where it took over 23 years for the truth to emerge that fans were not responsible for the tragedy, amid a catalogue of lies and cover-ups over what really happened.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling

Johnson, N. R. (1987b). Panic at ‘The who concert stampede’: An empirical assessment. Social Problems, 34, 362–373.