Putting others first can cost lives in emergencies, according to a new study.
The study, which used computer modeling of a flooded subway station, found overall survival rates were substantially higher when strong people in a 30-member group reached safety themselves before trying to help weaker people.
“Foolhardiness is not a good strategy for rescuing,” said Eishiro Higo, a civil engineering Ph.D. candidate at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who led the research. “In very critical situations, we have to be kind of selfish, but we can still help others if we have proper equipment and proper strategies.”
The study showed that when strong members try to help weak members before they are secure themselves, both are dragged down and the group as a whole suffers.
For the study, Higo and his colleagues built a two-dimensional computer model of an actual three-level underground space in Kyoto, Japan, that consists of a subway platform, a parking garage, and a shopping mall.
The model simulates severe flooding from a nearby river, with a mix of adults and senior citizens who must reach safety via staircases from the subway platform level to the surface.
Higo repeatedly ran the model using three different evacuation strategies: One in which people only worried about themselves; one in which people immediately worked together as a group; and one in which those capable of saving themselves reached a safe place before trying to save others using a rope.
In most life-and-death scenarios when variables such as the ratio of adults to seniors were adjusted, the rope strategy resulted in the highest overall survival rate, according to Higo.
In a typical scenario that assumed evacuation efforts beginning at a particular point in time, 12 of 30 people survived using the rope strategy, while there were just five survivors using either of the other two strategies.
“We have to identify what is brave and what is reckless,” said Higo. “Helping people from a safe location is still good behavior and the result is actually much better.”
Crucial to the success of the rope strategy, however, was the availability of simple tools for use by rescuers. Design features, including handrails and raised areas on stairs for evacuees to brace themselves or rest, also markedly increased the chances of survival, he reported.
An extension of work he did for his master’s degree at Kyoto University before coming to Waterloo, his research was motivated by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated east Japan in 2011.
He said he hopes his findings stimulate discussion and lead to the inclusion of relatively inexpensive disaster preparedness features, such as ropes and resting areas, in public spaces.
The study was published in the journal Expert Systems with Applications.
Source: University of Waterloo