Fatal instinct: Saving others first can cost more lives in emergency, study finds

WATERLOO, Ontario — It’s a natural instinct for some people to jump into an emergency situation and help others whose lives are in danger. But a new study finds that putting other people first before saving oneself and being the hero can ironically lead to more casualties than if a person ensured their own survival first.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo created various computer simulations of an underground subway platform, shopping mall, and parking garage in Japan that was hit by a massive flood from a nearby river. People stuck in the three-level structure — a mixture of about 30 adults and seniors — could reach safety by climbing a staircase from the subway station to the outside.

Being Superman has its downsides. A new study finds that putting other lives before yours can worsen the survival rate in an emergency situation.

The simulations predicted three different scenarios when it came to ways people would evacuate. In one, it was every person for themselves — no one stuck around to help one another. In the second, the trapped pedestrians worked together as a group to pull others to safety. The final scenario had the strongest and most capable victims save themselves first, then work to save the others using a rope once they were safe.

The results showed that when the strongest people reached the surface first and then used the rope to reel in the others, survival rates were “substantially higher” than in the other scenarios.

“Foolhardiness is not a good strategy for rescuing,” says lead researcher Eishiro Higo, a civil engineering PhD candidate at the university. “In very critical situations, we have to be kind of selfish, but we can still help others if we have proper equipment and proper strategies.”

Higo ran the three simulations repeatedly and found the survival rates to be consistent. About 12 people wound up surviving when the stronger adults saved themselves first, whereas only five survived in the other scenarios.

“We have to identify what is brave and what is reckless,” says Higo, who notes that features like handrails on the stairs and other devices that can serve as tools made it easier for evacuees to hold themselves up firmly during the rescue operation and played into the outcome. “Helping people from a safe location is still good behavior and the result is actually much better.”

The researchers hope that the findings will lead to developers considering the inclusion of safety tools like rope and other built-in objects that people could use for balance or safety in public areas during an evacuation.

The findings are published in the October 15, 2017 edition of the journal Expert Systems with Applications.