Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > On the anniversary of 9/11, an awful piece of emergency management

On the anniversary of 9/11, an awful piece of emergency management

This morning I went out to do my usual Sunday morning shop for the week at one of the major chains local emporium. They have adopted the civilised approach of opening the door at 0930 even though the ludicrous Sunday trading laws mean that they can’t serve you before 1000, so I can, at least, wander round filling my cart and be back home at a reasonable hour to get on with my day.

I was accompanied as usual by a companion who, like me, is a veteran of managing large establishments and running countless emergency evacuations of such places, and so when a bell sounded a couple of times and an alarm started up we resignedly began the journey from half way round the store towards the exit: We know the signs, especially when my companion was literally shoulder charged by one of the store employees running towards the store room and bakery area.

Sure enough the public address burst into life and a message asking everyone to leave the store began, but then an extraordinary thing happened. From the Staff Only area that the lady who had bounced off my companion had vanished into, employees began to emerge shouting “There’s a fire, get out!” and running, yes running, towards the exit.

My companion and I were making a calm departure having abandoned our shopping carts at the side of an aisle out of the way and the other shoppers were also leaving in an orderly fashion, but not the employees, they were weaving and bobbing as they rushed to get out and the “There’s a fire, get out” was heard several times from more than one of them as they rushed past us.

It was truly one of the most extraordinary scenes I have witnessed at an emergency evacuation. I have been in some tight corners over the years, some of which you’ve read about here, but this morning I felt genuine fear. Thank goodness there was not a panic amongst the shoppers, especially as we got near the narrows of the exit. My companion was not too steady having had a fall at home the night before and, large as I am, I’m not too sure that I could have shielded them adequately in a stampede.

Fortunately we, and everyone else, got out OK, but I am writing to the company concerned with some observations.  Given our experience of these things we did not hang around for the aftermath, but decanted to a rival store up the road where I may start to shop in future on the basis that I might be safer.

The other observation I will make is that, having assembled the store team in the centre of the car park two of the supervisory team, presumably having completed the roll call, appeared to realise that the main entrance had been left open and, seemingly, unguarded for about three minutes. They then both began to run back to the entrance.  Why run through a car park with some, like me beginning to drive out and others still driving in unaware of the drama? Why run anywhere at all?

Whether there was a fire or not is not important, what matters is that an emergency evacuation should be carried out in a calm and controlled manner and this one was not, it was almost a “How Not To” demonstration.

All in all it was a shameful performance. I would love to do a debrief using the CCTV footage (assuming they have it) and to try and help improve. I’m still having problems believing it happened.

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  1. September 12, 2011 at 8:19 am

    What an extraordinary experience. I have never heard of anything so bad before. Lack of training is often the problem. Organisations who think it’s common sense and save themselves the expense of giving staff the skills they need to run their business for them.
    I bet they hadn’t had any customer service training either let alone how to communicate in an emergency. Too often managers tell me why staff don’t need skills training and that looking after the customer is just common sense! And then this happens.

    You are very wise to pick another store to shop in.

    • September 12, 2011 at 9:24 am

      I think that that is true. I didn’t stay long enough to find out whther or not it was a drill, but to be heading for the exit and find yourself being pased by the employees rushing to get out first? Imagine that sort of behaviour on a sinking ship!

      I was trained to, and have always worked on the basis of getting everyone out in a calm and controlled manner in order to keep everyone safe. By all means shout FIRE to raise the alarm initially, but once the bell starts ringing there needs to be just a clear and calm voice of command to leave the building.

      Over the years I’ve evacuated skyscapers, industrial complexes, retail premises public spaces and and with numbers of people from just a handful to well over a thousand. I’ve also been evacuated many times from public and business spaces, but I’ve never witnessed anything as shambolic as I did yesterday.

      In terms of elapsed time the difference between a well managed evacuation and a badly managed one may only be seconds, but you can go from getting way with it to a fatality in seconds too. Someone stumbles in front of one of those rushing, they both fall, people try to stop but the crowd presses in behind and all of a sudden things have got ugly

      As I said in the blog I felt genuine fear for a few seconds, but a combination of stoicism and truculent resignation from the customers prevailed and we shuffled out safely.

      I understand the difficulties of training a shift based workforce and including the likes of the youngsters who only work weekends and such. I hope that they will try and learn from things and get better. Maybe I am more sensitive to these situations because I have the specific experience, but I am glad that the store was relatively quiet when this happened.

      Thanks for the comment.

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