Way back when I was a PIO2(T), I was dutifully making my stops on a trapline for a big fire when I was contacted by the Lead PIO with new instructions. The agency administrator had relayed reports of panic in a nearby neighborhood and I was told to go quell that panic. We certainly could not afford any panic on this incident, no sir. In those days, the word panic scared me as I envisioned having to crawl on top of my government-provided Ford Ranger and shout down an angry mob. The reality was quite a bit different.
When I got to the neighborhood, there were a few people packing up, but nothing crazy. I stopped by a house where a man was loading stuff into the back of a pickup. After a little conversation, I learned he and some others were bugging out because the fire was on the nearest ridge and would be into the neighborhood in no time. Indeed, the column looked formidable and close. However, I knew it was several miles away and not a near-term threat to the neighborhood. Once that was explained to the homeowner and a few neighbors who had wandered over, everyone relaxed, I reported my success at stopping the great panic and subsequently got a few things signed off in my task book. The praise I received seemed a bit excessive for just chatting with a few folks about what was going on, but the experience did spur me to start thinking about panic and how we use it on incidents.
The word panic is of Greek origin and descended from panikos, meaning "of Pan." Pan is the Greek god who would repeatedly scare mortals until panic ensued. He was also the god of the wildlands, the meadows and forests where man had yet to take hold. Those were the scary places. The modern use of panic implies a loss of rationality and the ascendance of selfishness. That is, a tipping point where civilization takes a back seat to self-interest, where people will sacrifice others to save themselves.
Even though panic is frequently referenced in our popular culture and news stories, in real life it is extremely rare for disasters to lead to hair-on-fire panic. (Financial panics are different.) In 1938, when H.G. Wells broadcast The War of the Worlds on radio, it was so realistic some folks thought it was actually happening. Their reactions were described as panic, but what would you do if the news told you Martians were invading? During the 9-11 attacks, people ran as fast as they could from falling buildings and debris clouds, which was a rational response to the dangers. After the threat was in the distance, folks calmly walked out of Lower Manhattan helping each other along the way. There was no panic even though news stories often used the word as a descriptor. Desperation, worry, and fear do not equal panic.
In an article titled Panic: Myth or Reality, author Lee Clarke notes:
An enormous amount of research on how people respond to extreme events has been done by the Disaster Research Center, now at the University of Delaware. After five decades studying scores of disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tornadoes, one of the strongest findings is that people rarely lose control. When the ground shakes, sometimes dwellings crumble, fires rage, and people are crushed. Yet people do not run screaming through the streets in a wild attempt to escape the terror, even though they are undoubtedly feeling terror. Earthquakes and tornadoes wreak havoc on entire communities. Yet people do not usually turn against their neighbors or suddenly forget personal ties and moral commitments. Instead the more consistent pattern is that people bind together in the aftermath of disasters, working together to restore their physical environment and their culture to recognizable shapes.
Looking at the 1979 concert by The Who in Cincinnati, which resulted in the deaths of 11 as concert-goers were pressed against the entrance, Clarke says this:
The myth of panic endures because it provides an easy explanation for complex things. For example, attributing the deaths at The Who concert to panic detracts attention from an engineering failure (the building could not accommodate so many people waiting at once), a management failure (not forecasting the demand for entry into the concert) and an organizational failure (once the disaster began it could not be stopped).
The neighborhood story and Clarke's paper illustrate three problems with panic that crisis communicators must confront. First, if panic and panic-like actions are rare or non-existent, we need to acknowledge that a public response that looks like panic through our eyes must be a result of incomplete information. The people who lived in that panicky neighborhood were acting rationally given what they knew at the time. It looked like panic to the agency administrator and the Lead PIO because they were viewing the actions through a lens that included a more complete knowledge and understanding of the fire.
If you hear of public panic during an incident, that should be a huge heads-up as it most likely means there are people out there acting appropriately, but those actions are based on incomplete or wrong information. The job of a PIO--a crisis communicator--is to move the public perceptions of the incident as close to reality as possible for as many people as possible. Panic in the streets is a failure of information delivery and incident management that must be remedied quickly.
Second, the idea of using panic as an excuse for complex failures or more usually, anticipated failures, is common on incidents. When agency administrators express concerns about panic, they may be thinking of actions undertaken because of bad information, but more than likely they are projecting their own fears. Unlike group or acquired panic, individual panic is real and many of us are pushed to the edge by tough assignments. Peter Sandman writes:
Especially on the local level, crisis managers just about always have a day job, and when a crisis arises, it’s probably their first or second or third crisis. Not surprisingly, they feel some anxiety, even fear:
In short, it is easy for administrators (and everyone else) to feel panicky and then verbalize this as a worry about public panic. If you hear an agency administrator or a stakeholder or anyone on your incident voice concerns about not-quite-here-yet public panic, that should also be a heads up. In that case, you engage in empathetic conversations, slow things down for them, and exhibit confidence and competence. Don't let that fear of panic become a driver for your incident or communication strategies.
Finally, the prospect of panic should never lead us to be inappropriately reassuring. We must confront the reality of the incident and communicate it while trusting the public. As JFK said in a 1958 address:
"But this is not a time to keep the facts from the people – to keep them complacent. To sound the alarm is not to panic but to seek action from an aroused public."
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.