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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
July 6, 2023


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People’s behaviour in terrorist attacks and implications of control room response 

Taking account of human behaviour and reactions is critical when designing control room responses to terrorist attacks, Dr Aoife Hunt told delegates at the Crisis Management in Tall and Complex Buildings conference, held alongside IFSEC in May this year. Ron Alalouff reports.

There is a wide variation between how people should ideally react in terrorist situations and how they actually do react, said Dr Hunt, a director of GHD UK and a leading specialist in people movement and emergency planning. Ideal behaviours in an emergency would include: 

  • Following instructions 
  • Responding immediately 
  • Using escape paths efficiently 
  • Moving directly to a place of safety 

City-TerrorismThreat-20In reality, however, people’s behaviour have the following characteristics: 

  • Interpreting things differently 
  • Seeking more information 
  • Evacuating using routes based on knowledge rather than those designed to be the quickest (for example, people exiting the way they came in rather than using designated emergency exits) 
  • Taking their belongings 


So we should take account of and plan for these behaviours. But people’s real behaviours also differ from the behaviours that they perceive themselves exhibiting. For example, people tend not to panic in reality, even though they perceive themselves to do so. Video observations have shown people walking and remaining calm, even though they thought that they ran and panicked. 

But behaviours exhibited in real life can vary dramatically, and can often be contradictory. These can include: 

  • Running, hiding, barricading and calling the police or security 
  • Asking for information on what to do 
  • Intense evasive action 
  • Intervening 
  • Freezing 
  • Fighting 
  • Continuing with their regular behaviour 
  • Screaming, shouting, crying or hyperventilating 
  • Helping others 
  • Pushing, shoving and trampling 

The most dominating behaviour in such situations is seeking and sharing information. Rather than revolve around panicking, it’s more about seeking to make decisions – even though the decisions made may not be the best ones in the circumstances.  

Examples of counterintuitive behaviours include people approaching the van in the 2017 London Bridge attacks, assuming it had been involved in a crash, and people approaching and speaking to the killers of soldier Lee Rigby in the Woolwich attacks of 2013. 

Dr Hunt says our understanding of a terrorist attack depends on where we are in relation to the attack – (1) right at the centre of the attack, (2) around the centre of the attack, or (3) further away from the centre. It’s in zones 2 and 3 that lives can be saved.

Control room

The most important response from the control room is sounding the alarm and calling the police. The police ideally want the control room to make the ‘golden call’, where control room staff have eyes on the situation. In terrorist attacks, most casualties will happen in the first two minutes, before the police arrive.

As far as security announcements from control room staff are concerned, most people want information and instructions, including details of what has happened and what is happening. Announcements are hard to get right, and should encompass information about:

  • The type of threat
  • The number of attackers
  • The location of the attack
  • Action to be taken
  • Lockdown
  • Arrival of police
  • Police messages

Messages should be repeated, and it costs nothing to practice such announcements. Free courses for security control room operators are available from the National Protective Security Authority.

Dr Hunt concluded by saying: “I urge everyone to use their understanding on how people behave to adjust your response.”

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