I had to comment on Thejendra’s article on earthquake prediction in the Fall 2008 issue. Seeing stuff like this scares me. Although we don’t have to “worry” about being able to predict earthquakes with any meaningful precision or accuracy, the author’s purported downsides of such a warning not only are without basis, they actually contradict observed behavior.
No question that warnings don’t always help (e.g., the Homeland Security Alert System), particularly if they are too broad, too late, or do not have sufficient direction (HSAS providing excellent examples of all of that as well, particularly under its original format). Timing and delivery are critical; also no question that anticipation of an event can be far worse than the actual thing, whether relating to an injection or a “dirty bomb” (thus the tactics of terror) – that’s why we need to understand how people perceive risk.
All of that said, people rarely display mass panic, and it is extremely uncommon for them to obey evacuation orders en masse (it’s actually just the opposite: see how many people evacuate a building when the fire alarm goes off, or how many stay in advance of a hurricane). In the overwhelming majority of documented incidents, whether single-site incidents like fires or large-scale disasters, people tend to respond communally and altruistically. Most people do not fight over access/egress, loot, riot, etc. I could site a substantial research that supports this, including some exhaustive reviews of actual incidents, e.g.:
- Clarke, L., 2002, Panic: myth or reality? Contexts, v. 1, no. 3 (Fall), p. 21-26; free abstract, PDF (fee): http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/ctx.2002.1.3.21?prevSearch=authorsfield%3A%28Clarke%2C+Lee%29
- Quarantelli, E.L., 2001, Sociology of panic, in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences: Pergamon. Free PDF: http://www.udel.edu/DRC/preliminary/pp283.pdf
It’s not like we can withhold an earthquake warning because the best we can do is maybe a minute’s notice in heavily instrumented areas, but when we start to follow the path of believing that we must control information to prevent panic, we end up with a lot of very bad results.
Jeff Rubin, PhD, CEM, is an emergency manager for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in Oregon.
"Appeared in DRJ's Winter 2009 Issue"