So what causes people to give in to panic and decide to behave in such a dangerous way in crowds? The answer is, they don’t. “One of the biggest misconceptions about crowds is that they panic,” says Simon Ancliffe.
Terrorists are increasingly targeting crowded, busy locations , and an emergency that happens in an area with large groups of people has a huge potential for tragedy. The Manchester bombing, the lorry attack in Barcelona this summer and the London Bridge attack make for grim reminders that those who want to hurt innocent people choose their targets based on where they can cause the maximum amount of damage.
However, fatalities in crowds can happen without malicious intent. A crush from a dense crowd can cause asphyxiation : people can die on their feet simply from not being able to inflate their lungs due to the pressure on their ribcage. When planning for a crisis in a public or busy place, directing a crowd safely is a matter of life and death.
So what causes people to give in to panic and decide to behave in such a dangerous way in crowds? The answer is, they don’t. “One of the biggest misconceptions about crowds is that they panic,” says Simon Ancliffe, crowd management expert and chairman of Movement Strategies. “People are more twitchy due to the current climate, so if they think they have heard a gunshot then it is perfectly sensible for them to run away.”
“Crowd behaviour might look like panic to people on the outside – the police or security team for example,” says Simon Ancliffe. “But individuals in the crowd don’t have a top-down view. It may be dark, there may be lots of loud noises, confusion, they might not know where the exits are.” Combine this confusion with the powerful physics at play, and the individual in a crowd has very little ability to go against the flow.
Dirk Helbing was one of the pioneers in crowd dynamic studies . He put forth the theory that at a low density, crowd dynamics can be compared to the behaviour of gas. At a higher density, people become more like molecules in a fluid. And then at very high densities, when people are squeezed in between other bodies, it’s more like a granular material . Just like in a body of water, pressure creates waves and channels of movement. People are not necessarily choosing to push, or keep moving and create a bottleneck, or to crush the people at the front – they have no choice. After a crowd crush incident, bent steel barriers  capable of withstanding thousands of kilos worth of pressure are evidence enough to show that there are greater forces at work than one person is capable of exerting – or resisting.
An understanding of these forces must inform an evacuation or emergency plan. In an emergency, often the gut instinct is to help others or to fight back – not blindly panic. During the attack on London Bridge and Borough market in June 2017, many victims helped others  despite their own serious injuries, and many fought back at the attackers instead of panicking. According to a study by the Emergency Planning College, “panic is actually very rare and instead, behaviours typically remain structured, organised, helpful, cooperative and coordinated.” Given clear and calm instruction, an emergency evacuation should not create further injuries.
How can crisis managers learn from crowd dynamic research?
The key to a safe and successful evacuation comes back to planning. Before Helbing’s research and the work of crowd safety experts like Paul Wertheimer, deaths were described as a moral failure of the individuals in the crowd rather than a failure to plan. When The Who played in Cincinatti in 1979 and several people were trampled to death, the crowd was said by one journalist  to have “stomped 11 persons to death [after] having numbed their brains on weeds, chemicals, and Southern Comfort.” Outrage was aimed almost entirely at the crowd, not the event organisers, and deaths in concert crowds continued to happen .
Successful managing of a crowd in an emergency can only happen through being proactive, not reactive. While businesses in busy areas like Oxford Street need to prepare their staff, individuals themselves can also help keep themselves safe. “Be aware of your surroundings. Look out for exits and staff that can help, and be aware of hazards for fast moving crowds such as stairs or vehicles,” advises Simon Ancliffe. “If you need to get out of a crowd, don’t try and go against the flow of people. Try to move sideways or diagonally into open spaces rather than pushing.”
While we can all take sensible measures to keep ourselves safe, ensuring the safe management of crowds is the job of police, event organisers and security experts, not individuals themselves. If a crisis happens, responsibility must be taken by those who have the power to prevent mass-chaos by planning a clear route to safety.
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