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The Break Room: Now Is Not the Time to Panic

Aug. 7, 2012
Authority, information, communication and consistency: These tools help prevent panic in an emergency situation.

Last month, I was on a flight to Denver when the captain came on the intercom about a half hour before landing. “Flight attendants, take your seats for the duration of the flight,” he said. “We’re going to have a very bumpy descent into Denver.”

The moment he finished speaking, the plane started to shake. While I’m well aware that a little turbulence is no big deal, it’s still unsettling to rocket through the air in a metal tube that is bumping, shaking, shuddering and jolting from side to side. And then a flight attendant made it all worse when she got on the intercom with this cryptic message:

“Passengers, please remember that if we need to make an emergency landing, you cannot take your personal belongings with you. You must leave them on the plane so we can ensure everyone evacuates safely.”  Without another word, she turned off the intercom – just as the plane lurched in a particularly rough spot of turbulence.

Did I hear that right – emergency evacuation? I glanced around to see other passengers wearing bewildered, concerned expressions. Minutes ticked by, the plane continued to shake and the flight crew offered no additional information. What worried me – and, I assume, the other passengers – was that we had no idea what was going on.  We didn’t know what the pilots were thinking, what the flight attendant knew that we didn’t or if an emergency landing was actually a possibility.  In short, it would have been easy to panic.

True panic, according to Barbara Reynolds, Ph.D., a crisis communication expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), results in behavior that runs counter to a person’s well-being. For example, running up and down the plane aisle screaming that we were going to crash would be panicked behavior.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” Reynolds says.  “It’s not okay to be so afraid you become frozen or do something irrational.”

This type of panicked behavior is rare. The more common feelings we usually label “panic” – shallow breathing, upset stomach, racing mind – are a fight-or-flight response. In an emergency, these highly charged emotions can lead to disorder, confusion
or safety risks if not managed appropriately.


Reynolds offers the following suggestions to help employers and safety professionals manage any emergency situations they may experience at work:

Practice, practice, practice.  Be prepared for an emergency and train employees in how to respond. “The more people are practiced or prepared, the more they can fall back on previous – if not as emotional – experience,” Reynolds says.

Designate key leaders.  Identify and train several people to take a leadership role in the event of an emergency so the work force has an authoritative voice to rely on.

Give guidance, but don’t be too prescriptive during training. “People want to be empowered to make good decisions for themselves,” Reynolds explains.

Offer clear, consistent communications.  Uncertainty and mixed messages in a crisis situation are a recipe for anxiety or panic.

Start building trust now. “Trust and credibility are vitally important [in emergencies], but it’s hard to get that in the instant,” Reynolds says.  “You have to behave on a day-to-day basis as trustworthy,  and with the safety of [employees] in mind at all times.”

Offer the “why.”  People like direction, but they also want to know why they are being asked to do things.  Anticipate this and be prepared to give a reason.

“It’s just not helpful to tell people, ‘Don’t panic,’” Reynolds says. Instead, offer clear choices and help them act safely.

I’m happy to report that my flight to Denver ended in a normal,  if bumpy,  landing. I still don’t know what prompted the flight attendant to raise the anxiety level in the plane by making that casual evacuation remark. In retrospect, I wish I had stuck around after landing to ask her – but at the time, I was just happy to be back on solid ground.


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