Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Unthinkable - A vital book worth thinking about

Amanda Ripley's book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why is a very readable, and very important book indeed.

The book discusses human reactions to disaster scenarios, and the effect these reactions have to survival in a disaster situation.

The book goes through multiple historical disasters - fires. floods, plane crashes, terorrist attacks and analyze ordinary people's response to the events.

An interesting analysis is her writing on why it takes so long for people to evacuate from dangerous ocations such as a fire or plane crash. Human activity, combined with a lack of training and education of the general public for what to do in such an event explains it.

General human response when untrained to a sudden disaster is to mill around and get confirmation from others that it is happening and generally slowly react to the situation. Of course this is the wrong thing to do, but that's how it works.

I can confirm that reaction is darn slow, and I reacted exactly as she describes in her book - the wrong way.

At work earlier this year the fire alarm went off.

Did all of us immediately move towards the exits and get out of the building? (the right thing to do if there is a fire).

Nope, we milled around, exactly as Ms. Ripley describes others reacting in her book, conferring with each other to see if it was real or not.

Then most of us went to our offices and gathered some belongings - again exactly as she describes how most people would react.

Given that I actually smelled smoke I got out of there faster than most (but still relatively glacially slow), meeting the firemen going in as I was going out.

Many others came out long after the very small fire in a downstairs office was put out. Thankfully it was not a real disaster and was very contained, but it certainly could have been lots worse.

The firm had not conducted a full-scale fire drill before and we still do not practice one.

After reading the book I'm now a bit better educated and prepared and the next time the fire alarm rings -- I'm outta here quick and will tell co-workers its time to go as well.

Ms. Ripley properly castigates the lack of real education the public is given regarding disaster preparedness. Apparently the government and others (for example the airlines in regards to airplane evacuations) do not want us really informed as they think we'll panic. The problem is that panic occurs when you do not know what to do. Informing the public about disaster preparedness and effective reactions to disasters will most likely save a lot of lives. In dealing with a fire for example you don't want to waste time searching for the stairs if you're on an upper floor - you should know where they are and where the alternate exits are.

As an aside, there's an interesting disaster quiz that can be taken at the NY Times, and much of the info it contains seems drawn from Ripley's book.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Whyis well written and very well worth reading, after all the life saved as a result may be your own or your loved ones.

1 comment:

Expatriate Owl said...

The author's name is RIPLEY (with a "P"). This caused a little bit of confusion today, at B&N, but the sales assistant figured it out, found the book on the shelf (in the "Psychology" section), and I bought it today.

Now, I just need to find time to read it. If the Introduction is any indication, it should be a worthwhile read.