Running From Nothing: Why False-Alarm Freak-outs Happen

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Airplanes were grounded on the tarmac at LAX on Sunday night after reports of gunfire in the airport terminal.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Around 8:45 p.m. on Sunday night in Los Angeles, Brent Pope and his wife, Tressa, exited LAX’s Terminal 6, when someone in a uniform began “yelling at the top of his lungs” to start running. And so, of course, they did.

“It’s crazy how quickly you go from [thoughts of] just walking, to protecting my wife and myself,” Pope told me. “That’s all you’re thinking about.”

Being outside and exposed, Pope’s immediate instinct was to pay attention to a bridge overpass looming above. “You think of Dallas, where they had snipers shooting down at people,” he said. “So, let’s get under an overhang, where if we’re being shot at we’re not such easy targets.” The couple quickly became part of a group of about 50 people who crossed the street and ducked into a parking garage, scrambling the short walls and running from the unseen threat in that awkward half-jog motion that comes with not entirely knowing where to go, but knowing it’s not here. “I saw people leave their bags behind, but thought, [Others] are going to see the unattended bags and it’ll be a whole other problem.”

In the garage, they approached a group heading in the opposite direction, making their way inside to catch a flight. “We were like, “They told us to run,’” says Pope. “I was like, I did my job. I told you what I know. Good luck.” In an attempt to get information about what was going on, Pope checked social media and discovered vague reports about an active shooter, mentions of some dude dressed as Zorro, chatter about a ninja. Then came warnings about which terminal to avoid. “I heard, it’s 4. Or 6. Or 7 or 8,” he says. “There was no real consistent … anything.”

About 15 minutes later, at the edge of the airport’s entrance, Brent and Tressa found a fortuitous cab with just enough room to U-turn out of the airport entryway and speed away from LAX. They were safe from the danger, whatever it was. On their way home, they discovered the thing they were frantically running away from was nothing at all.

***

By now, the facts of what happened Sunday night are mostly known, yet utterly mysterious. Around 8:40 p.m. at Terminal 7, police approached a man wearing a Zorro costume “with their guns drawn.” The man was detained, questioned, and when it was discovered his sword was made of plastic, he was released. Around the same time, “loud noises” were heard. That person (or, those people) confused the noise with a gunshot, or an explosion, or some other weapon that implied impending danger. And then, someone posted on social media mention of an “active shooter” at the airport.

Thus began the chaos.

The LAX “false-alarm” stampede is the most recent example of this recent trend of false-alarm freak-outs. Two weeks ago, around 40 people were injured when“firework noises” led to a stampede at a resort on the French Riviera. A few days before that, panic overtook New York’s JFK Airport amongst reports of an active shooter; rumor is that applause during Usain Bolt’s 100-meter dash in the Olympics was the “loud noise” that sparked the chaos. Unlike mass evacuations initiated by an external cause — a phoned-in bomb threat, someone bumping into a fire alarm — what makes these stampedes so dangerous is that there’s no inciting event on which to place the blame.

Any crowd at any time has the potential to explode. It just needs the right igniter.

A loud noise is often all it takes to spook that first agitator, an important moment that we’ll come back to in a bit. Once they’re panicked enough to shout about seeing a “gun,” or “bomb,” or whatever threat the unreliable eyewitness most definitely saw, the predictable actions of crowd mechanics take over. It doesn’t matter that people are running from literally nothing once that alarm sounds.

Rumors of danger spread in waves like heat from a fire, with successive groups of bystanders catching and advancing the alarm. Fear can travel from person to person through body language alone, and that chaos is compounded by the presence of smaller groups within the crowd (say, families) who stick together despite their varying levels of mobility. Add to that the constant presence of social media, which works like a huge gust of wind, exacerbating the spread of fear to places beyond vocal range.

If crowds have room to maneuver — such as the airport scenarios so far, where no major injuries have been reported — risk of physical harm is minimal. But if space is cramped, the simple physics of our bodies take over, and crushes occur. If there are seven people per ten square feet, and if the back of the crowd does not move in sync with the front, the physical limits of the space can result in tragedy; a stampede during the 1990 Hajj pilgrimage ended with 1,426 dead.

So, why are are these happening in airports? Frankly, it’s an anxious space. People are nervous because they’re about to board a flight. (Twenty-five percent of Americans suffer “some nervousness” at the prospect.) But it’s also an intense environment, with metal detectors, and drug-sniffing dogs, and a constant police presence. Throw onto that emotional powder keg constant news of terrorist attacks in large crowds, and you can see why people are on edge.

“Before, it was noise that one wouldn’t recognize — a construction worker drops his hammer or sheet of metal,” says Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a Los Angeles–based crowd-safety consulting service. “But now, we’re heightened. Is it a bomb? Is it a shooting? Are we under attack?”

Wertheimer knows because it’s his job to study crowds, a role that’s placed him in a wide range of roles: testifying how Walmart’s poor crowd-control measures led to deadly Black Friday stampedes, for one; throwing elbows at Iron Maiden shows to examine the inner workings of the mosh pit, for another. To Wertheimer, the LAX stampede is indicative of the training gap that management of many large spaces have when it comes to knowing how to handle crowds.

“This is going to occur again,” says Wertheimer. “It’s not a new phenomenon, not a new problem, not something that’s developed since this active-shooter period we’re going through.” The issue is less about the inciting incident that starts the pandemonium, but what to do when the growing panic begins. “When the public is in danger, you may modify [an emergency evacuation process] from a fire to a shooter to a stabbing,” he says, “but you have to have a process.”

To find out what a process like this looks like, you don’t have to look far. One of the first moments that happens on a flight is the announcement of what to do in the event of an emergency, including how and where to exit. (Pay attention to the preflight safety demonstration, and you may avoid being among the 30 percent of plane-crash deaths that are avoidable.) This pre-announcement sets the table for what to do in the event of an actual emergency, during which the in-the-moment delivery of instructions is necessary.

Evacuation procedures are not simply security telling people where to go. There’s an art in delivering those directions in the midst of panic. The speed at which the message is delivered must be right, allowing the crowd to digest what’s being said, while making sure it gets through to those who don’t speak English. And the security personnel must be given tools to further deliver those instructions. “They should have access to amplification like bullhorns or megaphones,” says Wertheimer.

It’s worth pointing out what a safe evacuation process doesn’t look like. When I told Wertheimer about Pope’s story above — when he was told to “run” by a person in an unknown uniform — Wertheimer responded, “Yelling at people is amateurish. Running, especially in a crowd, is dangerous to the person running as well as other people. Running should only be encouraged when there are no other options available.”

In fact, for Wertheimer, this type of “run!” evacuation message during emergency situations is indicative of a more troubling trend. “Fifteen years after 9/11, the country has done little to nothing about crowd safety and security,” he says. “Warnings have been ignored or trivialized. Training is either nonexistent or poorly executed. Educating the public about their role and options in emergencies is nonexistent. Now, we’re paying the price for our lack of preparedness.”

These failures aren’t to be blamed on the crowds, he says, but rather the people that invite others to gather in a place of public assembly. Any media portrayals that view the disturbance through the frame of it being caused by bystanders is little more than victim-blaming. “There is little you and I can do to protect ourselves — or our children — when we are in an unmanaged crowd that has been left to its own devices during an emergency,” says Wertheimer. Those portrayals are also maddening for those who lived through the event. “On the news, they were like, ‘People were panicking because they heard a noise,’” Pope tells me. “No, we were stampeding because police told us to run!”

Focusing on airports seems wrong, as they’re not the only spaces where large groups mass; sporting events and concert venues take place in a more confined space. And laying the blame on security officials seems misplaced; their goal at the point of panic is to evacuate as many as quickly as possible, a valid act in the case of a real terrorist attack or mass shooting.

But, well, these recent cases aren’t real.

Rather, the cause of these false-alarm freak-outs takes us back to that initial agitation, right after someone hears an innocent noise and believes it to be danger, when they mistake fog for smoke and shout “fire!” Those worrywarts have always been around; that’s not going to change. But what’s different now is how ready everyone else is to take their lead and bolt at the first sign of trouble. Despite Americans living in an era where violent crime and murder rates are lower than they have been since 1970, enough of us have a sort of secondhand posttraumatic stress disorder that manifests in a general uneasiness among crowds; while DSM-5 doesn’t consider PTSD to include “indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures,” a constant barrage of negative news stories truly do stress us out.

These false-alarm stampedes, then, are perhaps among the actual effect of 9/11, and the decade-plus of terrorist attacks, and the mass shootings, and security responses, and wall-to-wall media coverage of it all. When that first domino of composure topples, the rest of us are already primed to follow suit.