Recognising a Crisis Part 2

Dont-Panic1I wrote in Recognising a Crisis Part 1 about some of the ways we prevent ourselves from processing disastrous information, this time I’m going to take a step back in time to the moment an emergency begins.

You’ll have been in a building when the fire alarm goes off…what’s everyone’s initial reaction? A test, a prank, a short-circuit. If someone collapses in public, or starts choking at a restaurant maybe, the usual first assumption is that they’re larking around. Most first responders will have had the experience, multiple times, of being met at the scene of an emergency by someone wringing their hands and repeating ,”I didn’t realise it was real.” Of course, while dealing with their guilt for being human they are now delaying you getting on with your job, but that’s a whole ‘nother article.

Believe it or not, there’s a rule of thumb for working out how long it will take the average person to spot a crisis unfolding, and it involves the five senses. If an event only affects one sense, we are hard-wired to assume it’s normal. Two senses and we will begin to react as though it might be an emergency, three senses or more, we’re in full-on ‘do something’ mode. So, the person who is choking in a restaurant may look like they’re joking but when they begin to make strange noises, or maybe go silent, they are assaulting a second sense. If you touch them and their skin feels wrong, that’s the third..

A friend of mine nearly didn’t escape a basement fire, she explained that at first there were just strange shadows on the wall and she thought something odd was happening outside to make the trees behave differently. Then she heard a noise and her brain added this to an idea of unusual weather. When she smelt smoke, the fact that it was a fire sunk in and she reacted. She has never forgiven herself for that delay, which could have killed both her and her daughter. We chat about being human from time to time.

I used to run joint fire and first aid courses for a fire training company in London. The chap who ran it used a fascinating video to illustrate this process. It had come from the security camera of a small convenience store and recorded the aftermath of someone setting light to a cardboard display stand by the door, probably kids. People wandered into the shop, looked directly at the fire and continued to the counter to buy what they wanted…putting themselves between the blaze and the exit. Nobody picked up a phone, nobody left in a hurry, situation normal. Until the smell of smoke kicked in, because it wasn’t a marketing stunt after all.

We do it all the time because life would be impossible if our brains interpreted every anomaly as a crisis. My ‘check engine’ light comes on and I assume it’s nothing. If I start to hear a funny noise under the bonnet I’m more likely plan to call someone. Nasty smell and I’m stopping there and then. We call my smoke alarm the ‘toast alarm’ because it goes off every time someone makes toast, therefore the day someone had forgotten to turn the heat off under an empty pan, it was well alight before the smell of something that wasn’t toast made me go investigate.

Of course, none of this applies if your job is to expect the worst. If you’ve been trained to assess a situation for danger at 50 paces one sense will do, which is exactly how my ambulance team-mate Rachael found herself taking the pulse of an old man who ‘looked a bit peaky’ at Madame Tussaud’s.

If you’re writing about professional cops, paramedics and firefighters, by all means allow them to get it right instinctively, but if you place a normal person in extraordinary situations, your tale will ring more true if they take their time processing the problem. You also get a free side of reasons they can feel awful about themselves afterwards!

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

17 thoughts on “Recognising a Crisis Part 2”

  1. Having never been in a life threatening situation, (at least not an immediate one) I would not have given this any thought. It makes a lot of sense. We expect things to be normal. I do know that when something happens to me that is both unexpected and unpleasant it takes me a second or two to respond. My fist reaction is to freeze. While that only takes a second it illustrates what you are saying. Normally people do not react instantly. So this is important for writers to think about even when the situation may not be life-threatening. Now I will remember this when I write. 🙂

    1. Yes, we’d not get much done if we always assumed the worst but it does make us dopey at times.Of course freezing is an excellent survival tactic too…a bit of time to process the information is really useful. 🙂

  2. This is great stuff, Carolyn. Thanks!

    I spent several years on the safety team at work. One of our jobs was to get everyone to leave the building during a fire alarm, which never worked. In that time, we had a couple of incidents that weren’t drills, and people still assumed in the first instance that it was a false alarm and were inclined to stay put.

  3. That is wonderful insight. I hadn’t thought of crisis-reaction before, but can see now that there is that moment of questioning first. Thanks, Carolyn!

  4. When you’re writing about the public’s reaction, don’t forget to throw in a good measure of stupidity. By mathematical definition, half the population is below average intelligence. This is particularly evident during an emergency.

    1. Ah yes, that’s a whole series of posts, lol. And in among the daftness there’s always the most incompetent person imaginable trying to take charge. My favourite quote ever, ‘Let me through, my daughter’s a doctor’s receptionist.’
      My first responder courses included a lecture on ‘tasks to give the idiots to keep them out of your way.’ Thanks for the reminder.

  5. What a great post. I’d never really thought it about it, but it’s so true. It does take us time to figure out something is wrong. This is great advice for writing. Our characters need to behave like real people (unless they’re MacGyver, because there are no real people that crafty :)).

  6. I loved these two posts, Carolyn. I have (sadly) been in a few crisis situations, and you are spot on. I hadn’t thought about using that knowledge to layer my characters, though. But I will in future.

    When I was six, I got hit by a truck (lorry :-)). I was pretty messed up: only hours from, at a minimum, a leg amputation, and likely death (neither of which happened). As I laid under the vehicle, the owner of a shop near the accident site stepped into view and said, “It’s Peter Baker.”

    “No,” I said. “Peter Barber.”

    Why that stuck with me, I don’t know, but I’ve often thought how the non-panicked nature of the exchange was in total contrast to the bloody scene.

    1. Weird the things we focus on in extremis eh? Normality is a huge defence mechanism…the first thing we were taught as emergency workers was to chat informally while doing whatever was required. Thanks for commenting Pete. 🙂

    1. Glad it made sense, thanks for commenting, maybe the post John Kenny made me think about, the stupidity of people in a crisis, would be a bit too eye-opening, but I’m tempted. 😉

  7. Excellent post, Carolyn, I’ve been in numerous crisis situations, mostly during the course of my various employments, and you are spot on. Funny thing is, when I was working in those environments, I was ready and reacting accordingly; however since leaving that way of life behind I’ve found that, should I find myself in a crisis situation, I react the same way as most people now and it takes a moment to register.

    1. Yeah, me too, embarrassingly enough. There’s a mental ‘putting on of uniform’ that orients your awareness in the right direction. Now I’m a civilian too I am as slow as everyone else.

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