Australia –– Bushfires and other emergencies are extremely stressful situations. A massive rush of adrenaline mixed with fear and anxiety causes most people to behave in an irrational way.
According to Dr Rob Gordon, a consultant psychologist with the Red Cross Emergency Services, when a fireman or other emergency personnel instructs someone to leave their home, the initial reaction is often disbelief. People will insist on asking a familiar person for advice and may be reluctant to believe the threat until they can see it for themselves.
Once they accept the threat, some people forget which items they need to take with them, forget where their car keys are kept and may find it difficult to remember the layout of the roads in their own town. Dr Gordon said that once a person becomes aware of an emergency their brain starts to function differently.
“Once you have a sense of threat or the normal everyday situation is swept aside by some emergency, we become highly specialised for survival,” Dr Gordon said.
“We activate everything that will enhance our ability to act in the world outside us and make changes, but that is at the expense of access to knowledge, thoughts, language and all the thinking that comes from language,” he added.
This means that people can only behave in a way they have practiced or been trained to behave.
“If we’ve got to stop and think, and go into problem solving, it requires us to use the language part of our brain, and that’s offline,” Dr Gordon said.
This means that people who have not prepared for an emergency tend to fall into a state of disorganisation.
“I remember a woman after a bushfire telling me that when she had a few moments to evacuate she chucked all the most expensive items in the car like the television and so on. When she got away she realised that she’d left all the papers and all the precious photographs,” Dr Gordon said.
Ultimately, this woman’s house did not burn down, but she did put together a list of things to take with her if she was threatened again.
“She couldn’t guarantee she would think rationally,” Dr Gordon said.
Dr Gordon said that while humans under threat do go into ‘survival mode’, natural instinct isn’t necessarily helpful in emergency situations.
“These instincts were refined in ancient times before civilisation,” Dr Gordon said.
“When the adrenaline kicks in we move into the right side of our brain where we think in pictures, because if we’re going to deal with a flood and a fire, you need to be able to look [at the threat], process the visual information and turn it into an action. You’ve got to work out which branch you can grab hold of as you go past,” he added.
This problem can be fixed by practicing what to do in an emergency situation and preparing an emergency survival plan.
There is information for preparing a bushfire survival plan at the NSW Rural Fire Service website: www.rfs.nsw.gov.au.
Information is also available on how to prepare for other emergency situations on the ABC’s emergency website: abc.net.au/emergency