Human Response

The Human Response

Emergency response always involves people. Therefore, it is important to understand how people respond during an emergency and how they should be trained. The manner in which they behave during an emergency is likely to be quite different from their normal behavior.  If you are involved in an emergency, you may become an untrained first responder.  Your first reaction is to help or run. Everyone has a unique personal response with a respective personal impact.

Vicarious rehearsal

Interestingly, experience has shown that people farther away (by distance or relationship) from the threat may actually exercise less reasonable reactions than those who are facing the real crisis. The communication age allows some people to vicariously participate in a crisis which they have no danger of actually experiencing and "try on" the courses of action presented to them. Because these "armchair" victims have the luxury of time to decide their chosen course of action among the possibilities, they may be much more critical about its value to them. In some cases, these people may reject the proposed course of action, choose another or insist that they too are at risk and need the recommended remedy (such as a vaccination or a visit to an emergency room). In its most troublesome form, these "worried well" will heavily tax the recovery and response.


Members of the community will experience denial. The following are some of the ways people experience denial. Some people:

An individual experiencing denial may not take recommended steps to ensure their safety until the absolute last moments, sometimes perhaps when it is too late. This maladaptive crisis response is often associated with people suddenly and deeply feeling that the universe is no longer a rational and orderly system.


In some instances, victims may be stigmatized by their communities and refused services or public access. Stigma, the fear and isolation of a group perceived to be contaminated or risky to be associated with, will hamper community recovery and affect evacuation and relocation efforts. In a disease outbreak, a community is more likely to separate from those perceived to be infected. 

Fear and avoidance

Fear is an important psychological consideration in the response to a crisis. The fear of the unknown or the fear of uncertainty may be the most debilitating of the psychological responses to disaster. With fear at the core, an individual may act in extreme and sometimes irrational ways to avoid the perceived or real threat.

Withdrawal, hopelessness and helplessness

Some people can accept that the threat is real but the threat looms so large that they feel that the situation is hopeless. They feel helpless to protect themselves and so instead, they withdraw.

Human Error Rate

When a situation is out of control and people are scared or panicky, their error rate is likely to be in the 10%–20% range or higher. This means that if an untrained person is asked to carry out five actions and a success rate of 80% for each action is assumed, then the probability of overall success is 0.85 or 33%. In other words, that person will most likely fail to execute the tasks properly. Instruments and mechanical equipment items, on the other hand, are not subject to emotional pressures which is why it is usually best to rely on them during an emergency.

The high error rate that most people exhibit during an emergency can be reduced by making sure that good emergency procedures are in place.  By conducting as many drills as possible, operating personnel have experience of what a real emergency may look like.


During an emergency, people are often overloaded with urgent information.  Consequently, they may tend to “fixate” on just one or two items even if these items are only a minor part of the overall story. The situation will further deteriorate if it turns out that an issue on which the person was fixated was wrong. Then, he or she will take actions that will exacerbate the situation. (Fixation on an incorrect signal was a factor in the accident at the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant.)

Heroism and Buddy Loyalty

In many plants, there is a general rule that anyone who is not part of the emergency response team (ERT) should always move away from an emergency situation, not toward it. In practice, people sometimes feel compelled to take “heroic” action—thus violating this rule. One reason they do so is to protect or save a colleague who has been hurt. Such loyalty can lead to inappropriate action. For example, if someone is knocked down by fumes his buddy may go into the situation to rescue him without wearing the proper breathing gear. As a result there could be two people overcome by the fumes. The buddy should summon help as quickly as possible but not put himself in danger.