How humans react in emergencies

Shipowners’ Club has noted in a new article that effective crowd and crisis management was paramount in managing emergencies on passenger vessels. In the event of an emergency, passenger vessels faced additional challenges to that of other vessel types because of the added risk associated with passengers. Crew therefore needed to be more vigilant and to show greater awareness of the risks faced. To manage behaviour in a crisis, it was first necessary to understand the roles and rules of passengers and crew separately.

Passengers usually performed an everyday role away from a vessel and would continue this when they were on board. They would combine this with the role of a passenger. Their perception of the role would be determined by the abilities of the company, ship, officers and crew. If passengers were confident in the crew’s abilities, then they would follow orders and behave appropriately in emergency situations.

Crews had predetermined everyday roles on board with which they would be very familiar. Crew should also have clearly defined responsibilities in the event of an emergency. To improve familiarity and competency with these defined tasks, emergency drills should be carried out regularly.

The difference between these two groups of people is that passengers need to be informed of their roles during an emergency, whereas the roles of officers and crew should already be clearly defined.

To better understand and react to the behaviour of a passenger in a crisis Odyssey Training defined four stages of a crisis;

  • Warning,
  • Impact,
  • Evacuation
  • Post event Reaction.


The way that people react to warning signs would differ, depending on the role they were playing. Crew were trained to raise an alarm at the first sign there was something abnormal or dangerous. Passengers, on the other hand, would require a number of signals before recognizing that there was a problem. These differing attitudes greatly influenced the response in an emergency. Due to their training and familiarity with the scenario crew would generally react more efficiently than passengers. Passengers would require instruction to be given to ensure that they act accordingly in an emergency.


Once the alarm was raised the physical and psychological effects of the emergency would start to set in. The abnormality of the situation would mean passengers experiencing a host of emotions that would very often render them scared and helpless and would also lead to stress. Passengers might also begin to conjure up worst case scenarios which might further intensify these feelings and start to influence their reaction. The role of the crew would be key in ensuring that these emotional responses were minimized. If not effectively managed, it was estimated only 25% of passengers would act in a rational way to tackle the threat posed by the emergency. This reinforced the need for a calm and concise approach, with good communication from officers and crew to the passengers about the actions they needed to take.


In an evacuation situation, clear instructions and effective organization was essential. At this point, it was key that crew knew their responsibilities and proceeded to follow the instructions set out in the vessel’s emergency response procedures. Quite often the individuals responsible for the safe evacuation of people make incorrect assumptions which could include:

  • Individuals will move as soon as they hear an alarm. – In fact, unless they are led, some people will be slow to leave a potentially dangerous area or situation.
  • The motivation to escape underpins any movements people make or actions they carry out. – Passengers will take time to switch into escape mode and may need strong instruction to realise the extent of the danger.
  • The time it takes to evacuate is only dependent on the time it takes to physically move to, and through, an exit. – Reaction time, anxiety levels and group dynamic will influence time taken. Anxiety may also cause an individual to take longer than normal.
  • People are most likely to move towards the exit they are closest to. – They will move towards the exit which appears safest, suits their needs or are already familiar with.
  • People move as individuals, without considering others. – Families will most often move as a unit and the build-up of a dense crowd will mean individuals inevitably have to follow others.
  • Fire exit signs help to ensure people find a route to safety. – As anxiety sets in, people can lose sight of peripheral objects like exit signs, meaning they have little or no impact.
  • People are unlikely to use a smoke filled escape route. – If passengers are already familiar with a route and believe it leads to safety they may choose to go through it despite the risks.
  • All people are equally capable of exiting the vessel. – Age, experience and alcohol intake are among the factors that can affect an individual’s ability to evacuate the vessel. The elderly and young will take longer than an experienced traveller.
  • Peoples’ safety cannot be guaranteed since they are very likely to panic – Panic is caused by a lack of information. Providing information will lead to clarity and allow passengers to better understand the situation.

Passengers will more often display the following reactions:

  • The surprise of an event may cause them to freeze.
  • They will look for an easy route to escape and try to gather valuables.
  • They will start to lose control and move from protecting others to self-preservation.
  • Passengers who behave in a non panicked way may act rationally and even look for ways in which they can assist.
  • Some individuals (approx. 25%) take on rational behaviour and approach the emergency as it is presented.
  • A good understanding of these behaviours is key for crew and will enable them to best assist and direct passengers.

Post-event reaction

Crew must be prepared for the resulting effects of the emergency and the behaviours of passengers upon the realization that the crisis is over.

There could be many scenarios at this point, ranging from no problems having occurred to vessel abandonment.

In some of these scenarios the crew will have to deal with possible casualties, and the way in which passengers will react to having witnessed this, as well as the way passengers will behave when re boarding a vessel, having been told that a crisis has been averted.

Following an emergency, passengers would take time to process what has occurred and will do so at different paces. Officers and crew needed to reassure and act in a manner which was both calming and encouraging. They needed to eliminate feelings of tension or stress because of the event and to maintain control, as passengers would continue to look to them for guidance. The crew’s behaviour would be critical to managing the long-term effects of an emergency on passengers. The quicker the passengers were calmed, the sooner they would recover from the shock.

Shipowners’ Club recommended the implementation of an emergency response framework, which would include drills and crew training for the care and assessment of passengers. Emergency response procedures should take into account the varying human behaviours and reactions to an emergency and should factor in ample time to react accordingly.

Shipowners’ expressed its gratitude to Odyssey Training ( for allowing it to use extracts from their “Understanding Human Behaviour in Emergencies: A Manual for the Cruise Ferry Sector” booklet to develop this article. and crisis management/