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Stay or Go? Human Behavior and Decision Making in Bushfires and Other Emergencies

Abstract

The policy of “leave early or stay and defend”, often shortened to the “stay or go” policy, has been the subject of critical review in the Royal Commission that followed the recent disastrous bushfires in Victoria, Australia. The need for people to evacuate or stay and defend their property and protect themselves is a critical life safety decision for many people on days of high bushfire activity. Some limited research has been undertaken into this individual decision making in bushfires. Other fields of emergency management also require people to make similar decisions as to whether to evacuate or stay in a “defend in place” situation. This paper examines research into “stay or go” strategies and decision making performance for high rise buildings, looking for common factors that may inform the bushfire situation and potential reforms for policy. Similarly, research into Hurricane Katrina and the failures to evacuate when mandated provide further insight into factors which can affect or postpone decision making. A number of common improvements related to emergency preparedness, situation awareness and trusted communication systems emerge in all these fields. However, this paper also suggests that this decision making in bushfires is more complex that just two simple options of “stay or go”. A greater understanding of group behavior and socio-cultural factors and their impact on personal decision making is required if more effective emergency management is to occur in the bushfire domain.

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Correspondence to P. F. Johnson.

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Johnson, P.F., Johnson, C.E. & Sutherland, C. Stay or Go? Human Behavior and Decision Making in Bushfires and Other Emergencies. Fire Technol 48, 137–153 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10694-011-0213-1

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Keywords

  • Bushfires
  • Emergency management
  • Evacuation
  • Stay or go
  • Decision making
  • Defend in place
  • Human behavior
  • Property
  • Social differences
  • Safety culture