Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 1, 2009

Panic and the Godzilla Myth in Homeland Security

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on October 1, 2009

You know the scene. It’s a preternaturally modern city. Self absorbed residents cascade into their importantly busy lives.

Then Godzilla shows up.

The city people start screaming.  For some reason they run in every possible direction. It’s as if they did not have a plan for how to react when an atomically mutated lizard rises from the sea to crush buildings and cars.

In spite of National Preparedness Month, the hapless urban residents ignored all messages about preparedness, 72 hour kits, and resilience. And now they are paying the price. They are in a state of pure panic.

It’s just how most American’s react in the face of disaster.

Or at least that’s the myth.


Jody A. Woodcock is a program manager for the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management in the State of Washington. She recently completed her homeland security master’s degree thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School. The thesis is titled “Leveraging Social Media to Engage the Public In Homeland Security.”  It’s about how public safety officials can use Web 2.0 tools to work more effectively with the public.

As a (small) part of her research, Jody looked at the panic issue. Here is an edited summary of what she found. (Jody’s thesis, including the relevant citations that I will omit here, will be available online in a few weeks from the NPS Dudley Knox library – one of America’s treasures.)


“Panic happens in disaster movies, but typically not in real disasters,” says social epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Glass. [There] is an assumption that the general public tends to be irrational, uncoordinated and uncooperative in emergencies – not to mention prone to panic.

The University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center studied more than 500 events and found panic was of very little practical or operational importance. What they did find was people became involved in protective activities, such as warning others, calling for help or assisting with rescue. Glass’s research backs up the University of Delaware studies. On the basis of observations and random interviews of 415 people in the World Trade Center stairwells, [Glass] found there was little panic and people were cooperative.

These studies do not show … that panic never exists. Panic can occur if … three conditions exist. First, the person must feel trapped. Second, he [or she] must have a sensation of great helplessness and finally, he [or she] must have a sense of profound isolation.

Panic can most commonly be found in large crowds, such as the yearly hajj where people have died in stampedes. The crowd can be calm and well mannered but if humans have less than one square yard of space, they lose the ability to control their movement. This loss of control can create the opportunity for the three conditions of panic to exist, but again these cases are rare.

“…[There is] panic, the emotion, and panic, the behavior. Panic behavior is defined as “irrational, groundless or hysterical flight that is carried out with complete disregard for others.” Many disaster victims report they panicked, but in truth they did not misbehave.  It was likely the fear response they were experiencing .

What is the fear response?

What does it feel like to face death? What happens in our brains when the ground rumbles and buckles beneath our feet? The most obvious answer is fear. This is a natural, primitive reaction to crisis. Fear is a survival mechanism that has served us well, with some exceptions, through history.

Amanda Ripley [author of the remarkable book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why”] believes many people misunderstand how fear guides our reactions.

“People’s behavior in a disaster is inexplicable until we understand the effect of fear on the body and mind,” Ripley writes.

She uses the example of a terrorist attack on the Dominican Republic’s embassy in Bogota, Columbia, and focuses on the reaction of U.S. Ambassador Diego Asencio. She describes how fear moved through his body.

At the first 90-decibel gunshot, signals traveled to Asencio’s brain by way of his auditory nerve. When the signal reached his brainstem, neurons passed the information to his amygdala, an almond-shaped mass located deep within the temporal lobes that are central to the brain’s fear circuit. In response, the amygdala set off a series of changes in the body over which Asencio has absolutely no control. His blood chemistry changed, his blood pressure and heart race increased and adrenaline was released. This potentially performance-enhancing shot of hormones produces the fight or flight reaction.

However, … for every gift fear provides, it takes one away. We may encounter increased strength and speed, but we may lose the ability to solve simple problems or even control of our bladder.  Time and space can also become disjointed….

Ripley quoted Asencio: as the embassy terrorist attack scenario continued “the action around me, which seemed to speed up at first, now turned into slow motion. The scene was like a confused, nightmarish hallucination, a grotesque charade. Everything I saw seem distorted; everyone, everything was out of character.”

Ripley’s research shows that many reported similar reactions as they evacuated from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Ripley reminds her readers that the human body is hard-wired for a fear response, but fear does not equal panic.

Even before a disaster occurs, the people in charge [i.e., the government] use panic as an excuse to discount the public. People will panic – the legends says – so we cannot trust them with the information or training.

Ripley quotes … disaster expert Dennis Mileti, “Do you know how many Americans have died because someone thought they would panic if they gave them a warning? A lot!”

The literature strongly suggests that people respond to crisis creatively and with collective resourcefulness. Ripley claims if regular people got as panic stricken in a crisis as most of us think they would, Flight 93 would have certainly destroyed the White House or U.S. Capitol.

It was assumed that air raids in Britain during World War II would panic the public. When the bombs did fall, Britain’s residents reacted unexpectedly. At the time, a writer from a local newspaper noted, “these were either the calmest or stupidest people in the world.” Similarly, it was assumed that residents near 3-Mile Island in Pennsylvania would panic, but they reacted calmly and evacuated in an orderly manner.


The panic myth is so ingrained in the minds of some disaster professionals that it blocks consideration of something that can be done to prevent panic: share information.


People experience fear in a crisis, but rarely panic. They, in fact, respond with great skill and innovation. So the question is how do we keep fear to a minimum and harness the skill of the general public to respond to disasters and protect the homeland? One answer is sharing information.

Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt said, “What I’ve always found is that people will respond to meet a need in crisis if they know what to do.”

Our bodies are hardwired to experience the emotion of fear but we can reduce its impact through information and training. “The actual threat is not nearly as important as the level of preparation,” says Ripley.” The more prepared you are, the more in control you feel and the less fear you will experience.”

Glass agreed … that information and practice can reduce fear – just knowing where the stairs are gives your brain an advantage. Research into plane crashes has similarly found that people who read the safety cards are more likely to survive.

Glass wrote, “Our tendency is to withhold information too long for fear that it will cause panic when, in fact, it is the absence of information that is most likely to cause panic.” Officials must recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times.

Typically the initial response to warnings of disaster is disbelief, not panic. If it appears a warning is credible, the next response is to try and confirm its validity by listening to the radio, watching television or going on-line to chat with friends and relatives. In a crisis, people believe information is empowering and not knowing is far worse that knowing.

[The] CDC notes that when people are swamping emergency hotlines or overloading email boxes and websites, they are not panicking, they simply are seeking the information they believe they need.

Detail is critical. For example, a broadcast warning that the river will crest 10 feet above flood stage may convey less meaning than providing maps to show the flooded areas or to identify landmarks that might be under water. By utilizing social media [the subject of Woodcock’s thesis], emergency officials can release consistent messages in real-time and address any rumors. Failing to do so could compromise any operational success.

By providing information, emergency officials can help manage fear and engage the public. It is also believed this practice can greatly reduce the number of psychological casualties in a disaster. In addition to communicating information about the incident, it is also important to provide information regarding the range of potential psychological responses they might experience and how to get assistance. Disaster researchers recommend that plans be based on what people naturally tend to do and to not force people into a command-and-control world. If people naturally want more information to calm their fears and get involved, then officials should provide a way to make that happen. Social media is an excellent option.”


Yesterday Phil Palin noted Secretary Napolitano challenge: “… we’re asking you to raise your hand and ask whenever you are in one of those groups, “What’s our plan.” Phil promised lunch to the three people who develop “the geekiest, wonkiest, most specialized resilience strategy….”

My speculation [probably not shared by either Jody or Phil] is that most American’s already have an effective resilience strategy. It is to continue to pursue happiness in whatever form they conceive it, within the opportunities and constraints afforded to them by the nation’s always evolving meaning of liberty. It is to continue to live inside the belief that a bad thing will not happen today.

Government seems to have a hard time accepting the choice its people have made. Like the changing patter of a telemarketers’ dinner time sales pitch, government first asked the nation to make terrorism prevention everyone’s priority. The pitch changed after Katrina to convince everyone to create a “culture of preparedness.” Now government wants its people to be resilient.

Maybe most people in most places in this country already are resilient. Not everyone, and certainly not everywhere. But most.

Will there be an earthquake, a flood, a fire, a terrorist attack today? Probably not. And if so, the odds are it won’t affect me.

What about tomorrow?

If something bad does happen, and if I’m not prepared, I’ll take my chances. Together with the other people affected, we’ll make something up.

Maybe I’ll insist government come to my aid, and maybe I’ll whine if I get the wrong kind of bottled water. Maybe I’ll blame whatever administration is in power for not coming up with some strategy that tricks me into taking a CERT class.

But I’m not going to panic.

Not unless there’s a Sea Serpent.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2009 @ 7:02 am

Great post and great subject to discuss. Emergency Public Information including an effective rumor control activity is of utmost important. Just as the sociologists and psychologists discuss the issue of role conflict and emergency workers ( you can be a fire service member but you still worry about your children being near or in the event)training and education can help to decrease role conflict! Same is true for the basic emotion of fear! It should be noted however that anomolies do occur. For example, deaths of volunteer firefighters are way beyond the same statistic for professional firefighters. Sometimes the professional are smart enough to let it burn if no lives involved while the volunteers overcome their “fear” and want to put it out. Certainly not my expertise. Being a coward myself try and avoid large crowds and places where access and egress limited. Disclosure, underground on DC Metro during Air Florida crash in 1982 when Metro had its first collision of trains and fatalities. The car I was in was jammed with commuters. No air flow, completely dark etc. Remarkably no panic but probably fear. Emergency door did not open so all doors were pried open by brute strength. But because of third rail possibly being charged the passengers waited (over two hours) for firemen to show up and lead us the 750 yards back to the Smithsonian station. By the way did anyone else notice that the NSTB issued nationwide notice for rail alarming systems of possible collisions being defective. That is my memory so don’t panic if you ride the rails and find out for yourself. The beginning of resilience. I do still ride Metro from time to time and even fly (although in total of four airplane “almost’ crashes and two helio “almosts” one involving auto-rotation.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

AGain more thinking about the post! Perhaps if the average citizen or resident of the US clearly understood what the government at all levels could and could not do, or would not do but could do, or various permutations and combinations of the above it would be easier to promote resilience. I overestimated Congression investment in Citizen Corps and related efforts and in fact GAO today release a report indicating total Citizen Corps appropriations and related effort through FY 2008 at $95M! If the government strategy is to hear no evil (lack of preparedness), see no evil, and speak no evil then no evil of lack of preparedness. So hoping seeing, speaking, hearing over and over that average citizen unprepared and that government also is unprepared then we would have a decent shot at promoting resilience. Until then just pipe dreams.

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