The LWF Blog

Facilities Management & Fire Safety – How people act in a fire situation – Part 2

January 23, 2018 11:05 am

In LWF’s blog series for those who work in Facilities Management or who have a responsibility for or interest in fire safety, we have recently been looking at human behaviour in a fire situation. In Part 1, we discussed some situations which have led to people not acting in the recommended manner during a fire and how that behaviour has influenced practical fire protection measures and guidance. In Part 2, we will look at how research in this area has developed historically and how this impacted the guidance given.


In the 1980s, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) began researching human behaviour in fires on behalf of the Department of Environment. This was influenced by the University of Surrey’s Fire Research Unit who had produced a model of human behaviour in the early 80s.


Prior to the concerted research into human behaviour undertaken by these bodies, it was commonly perceived that people involved in a fire situation exhibit symptoms of panic and thus are prone to irrational behaviour and inappropriate actions.


The belief that this panicked response was typical was so firmly established that it formed the basis for fire procedures and evacuation strategies and to some extent, still does today. There remains a reticence in some public buildings to actually inform people that there is a fire. Evacuation is most commonly undertaken without the ‘f’ word being mentioned at all.


Research into human behaviour in fire situations continued in the United Kingdom, which included findings from North America. The model produced as a result is fundamental and impacts every aspect of the human interaction in a fire situation:


 Training and Education

 Evacuation Strategies

 Emergency Organisation structures

 Fire Warning Systems

 Means of Escape designs


In a nutshell, the model shows that in the early stages of a fire situation, people are usually reasonable and sensible and irrationality is rare. It has also shown that there may be some ambiguity in early decision-making; the inability to know exactly what has happened and what is likely to happen in the near future impacts upon a person’s ability to decide what action is best.


David Canter’s study – Fires and Human Behaviour (ISBN 1853461393) summarises it as follows:


‘The confusions and ambiguities of the early stages are apparent, with the subsequent search for further information. This is followed by firefighting or flight, depending on the particular circumstances. The part played by the existing communication pattern within the organization in either helping or hindering coping with the fire is also clear in all incidents. Escape then appears to take place directly in relation to normal modes of entry and exit from the building. In this, smoke plays a role of hindering egress but not necessarily preventing it, some people moving long distances through quite dense smoke. Furthermore, sensible actions are frequently found whereas irrational non-adaptive responses are never recorded. Where fires lead to loss of life there is frequently not only slow response to early cues, but also administrative confusion in terms of who should take what actions.’


The research undertaken into human behaviour in fire situations has impacted upon the practical advice given within codes of practice including BS 9999 and BS 7974.


In Part 3 of this series, LWF will look at those areas of practical guidance which have been taken from human behaviour in fire research. In the meantime, if you have any queries about your own facilities or wish to discuss this blog series, please contact Peter Gyere in the first instance on 0208 668 8663.


Lawrence Webster Forrest is a fire engineering consultancy based in Surrey with over 25 years’ experience, which provides a wide range of consultancy services to professionals involved in the design, development and construction and operation of buildings. 


While care has been taken to ensure that information contained in LWF’s publications is true and correct at the time of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of this information.


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