Leadership in evacuation

Leadership in evacuation      


Social psychology applied to evacuation behavior has also focused on leadership, that is a process of social influence which has a great impact in managing both routine emergencies and catastrophic events (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2003; Giuliani, 2002; Kweit & Kweit, 2006; Sjoberg, Claes & Larsson, 2006; Witt, 2002). Drury and Cocking (2007) have pointed out that people facing a confused and uncertain situation usually follow those they think should know what to do. Taking their point of view by which social structure is preserved even during an emergency, that role will be assumed by fire pickets, fireman, police officers and so on. Survivors of the WTC 9/11 terroristic attack have reported that rapid and decisive orders given by a person perceived to be a leader prompted them to initiate the evacuation (Gershon et al., 2007). These are only few example of the power of leadership as a tool to enhance the effectiveness of evacuation. Nevertheless it has to be taken in mind that leadership is a double-edged sword. “At the extreme, good leadership either minimizes catastrophes or prevents them altogether, whereas weak leadership makes matters worse, compounding the damage” (Kapucu & Van Wart, 2008, page 711). 

Leadership in evacuation has been studied not only from a social-psychology point of view. Several disciplines have given their contribution to this topic, enlarging the perspective.

Biological and ethological studies have discovered that groups of humans operate like other groups of animals, underlining that a minority of informed individuals can lead a naïve group similar to migrating flocks of birds following experienced birds. Moreover, the evacuation process started by these informed leaders will be better in terms of speed and accuracy than one without leaders (Dyer, Ioannou, Morrell, Croft, Couzin, Waters & Krause, 2008). Studies in this field have investigated leadership in case of hazards and the consensus decisionmaking in human crowds basing on comparisons with animals. 

On the other hand, engineering evacuation models have focused on leadership in terms of simple crowd guidance. They assume that effective crowd guidance can improve egress efficiency and occupant survivability (Aubé & Shield, 2004; Wang, Luh, Chang & Sun, 2008). Some of these engineering studies have focused on interesting topics that are useful to develop a more efficient evacuation management. For example, Aubé and Shield (2004) have pointed out that leaders standing in specific positions and walking at a specific speed can influence the behavior of the crowd and lead occupants to the exit. In their simulation leader agents, unlike the others, had a global knowledge of the environment and were situated in different positions of the crowd they had to conduct out of the room. What the authors found is that the best condition (in terms of saved agents in the shortest time) was the peripheral leaders, placed around the immediate edges of the crowd, forming a border around the crowd starting point. Nevertheless, a second experiment revealed that a mixed condition of embedded (in the center of the crowd), peripheral and distant (at some distance from the crowd starting point) leaders was the one that was able to save the biggest number of people in the shortest time. Regarding the optimal leaders’ speed, Aubé and Shield (2004) determined that the optimal movement rate was approximately half the speed of the crowd members. Nevertheless, this perspective reduces the leader’s role to a guide to the emergency exit, neglecting all the psychological dynamics linked to leadership

A new interest in studying this topic from a psychological point of view has been increasing since the ‘80s. There are several branches of research regarding leadership, such as leadership and panic, leader behavior in terms of gestures and communication during an emergency, leader’s competencies and characteristics or leaders that emerge in that particular situation.

The first findings that have been found out in the ‘80s regard the relationship between leadership and the feelings of panic and tension that an emergency situation creates. The initial strong interested in studying panic and leadership associated to evacuation processes has decline due to the fact that panic is a quiet rare event (Aguirre, 2005; Shields & Proulx, 2000). Human reaction to disasters, in particular to fires, is indeed seen as “a logical attempt to deal with a complex, rapidly changing situation in which minimal information is available for decision and action” (Shields & Proulx, 2000, p. 102). Nevertheless, in same situations panic can occur, and an effective leadership is one of the factors that can reduce it. 

Considering the branch of research about leader’s correct behavior in evacuation, the traditional approach recognizes an effective leader through behaviors like standing in a visible position, gesturing, and loudly directing people toward the exit (Sugiman & Misumi, 1988). Nevertheless, Sugiman and Misumi (1988) developed an evacuation method called Follow Me Method, in which “each leader chooses one or two evacuees who are closest to the leader, and individually asks them to follow the leader. Subsequently, the leader actually takes them to the appropriate exit. In this method, the leader never verbally indicates the direction of the exit, nor raises his or her voice or makes any vigorous gestures. This method is characterized by concentrating the leader’s action on one or two persons to bring them with the leader” (Sugiman & Misumi, 1988, p. 4). The authors found out that the Follow Me Method was more effective only in situations with a large number of leaders and a small number of evacuees (for example when the number of evacuees for leader was 4). With larger groups and less leaders, the traditional method, called Follow Directions Method, in which “the leaders indicate the direction of an appropriate exit for as many persons as possible with a loud voice and vigorous gestures, saying, for example, "Go to that exit" ” (Sugiman & Misumi, 1988, p. 4) was more effective. Nevertheless, the experiment condition of a mix method of leadership was finally the most successful situation.

Other scholars have tried to found out the main competences that a leader in an emergency situation would need. These are: decisiveness, flexibility, informing, problem solving, managing change and creativity, personnel planning, motivating, building and managing teams, scanning the environment, strategic planning, networking and partnering and organizational-level decision making (Kapucu & Van Wart, 2008).

Nevertheless, leadership isn’t a unidirectional process, but an interactive one (Aguirre, 2005). Indeed, it depends both on leader’s features and team members’ perceptions. “Whether an individual would follow guidance is probabilistic and depends on his/her trust on the guidance provided, and his familiarity with the evacuation paths” (Wang et al., 2008, p. 328). Perceived authority of the leader is crucial in case of evacuation. Gershon and colleagues (2007) have found that people were slower to evacuate during the WTC 9/11 terroristic attack if the leader indicating to evacuate was perceived not enough authoritative. According to the same studying, also positioning leaders along the routes of evacuation was a facilitator for its effectiveness.

According to Aguirre (2005) an emergency situation is an uncommon situation and this new condition demands new leadership skills. From this perspective, during a crisis social roles are redistributed and so is leadership. Other researches regarding leadership in emergencies have found out the situation in which a leader can emerge (Aguirre, 2005; Kuligowski, 2008). For example, a leader can suggest event interpretations to team members and help them giving sense to the situation. Otherwise, he can manage the emergency situation suggesting the actions to be performed in the 3rd and 4th phase of the behavioral process for building fires (Kuligowski, 2008). “The group member who will become the leader is the one who proposes an innovative solution to the collective problem that is judged plausible and credible by the other group members” (Aguirre, 2005, p. 127). Innovators are most likely to become the leaders because they propose an innovative solution to the collective problem.  In other words, the leader will likely be the person who has skills, knowledge and innovative ideas that are considered as maximizing the chance of evacuate successfully for each team member. For this reason, new leaders are not necessarily those who conform to the pre-existing norms of the group (Aguirre, 2005).

Nevertheless, a lot of social-psychological questions are still unanswered in the study of leadership and in other dimensions of emergency evacuations that should be of interest to psychologists.