Woman and Children First?

Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson of Uppsala University recently performed an interesting analysis of survival rates in a large number of major ship disasters ranging over a period of over 150 years. They were interested in determining whether the old adage “Woman and Children First” actually occurred in such disasters.

While many of their conclusions are statistically very dubious, their data indicates that women and children survival rates actually are substantially lower than men and crew in major shipping disasters.

The most significant exception is the Titanic where a much higher percentage of women and children did survive. This study was a statistical analysis, and while the numbers do support their findings, each disaster is unique and there may have been factors that would have resulted in lower women and children survival rates even if there was an intent to allow the women and children to enter the life boat first. Some of these disasters may have been so confusing that the order was never heard, others may have developed too quickly for any type of abandonment order to have taken place. And when panic develops, “Woman and Children First” (or any other type of group objective) is simply abandoned in the quest for individual survival.

However, quite possibly, Messrs. Elinder and Erixson’s analysis just sheds light on “major shipping disasters”, which are occurrences where things go totally wrong and it might be more interesting to evaluate ship abandonments where at least a modicum of evacuation planning and execution may have been possible. Possibly, a more useful analysis could have been made of ¬†smaller ship abandonments, many of which occurred during World Wars I and II and those that occurred along shores where external life saving support was available. In the end this study may simply note that Women and Children do not get to be first when panic develops.

And from an engineer’s point of view the next question is: How does one prevent panic? We are aware of a large number of studies on this subject in non-maritime settings, but on ships this is not as deeply studied.

Nevertheless there are some basic rules:

1. Panic is less likely to develop in smaller groups that know each other.

2. Panic is less likely to develop with strong leaders.

3. Panic is less likely to develop with clear goals in an achievable sequence (small definable steps).

4. Panic is less likely to develop if there is a clear and ample route of escape.

5. Panic is less likely to develop with appropriate training.

6. Panic is less likely to develop with clear communications.

Interestingly “Woman and Children First” is nothing more than an implementation of rule 3. It would be impossible to test (and there are much better engineering solutions before I would propose this test), but possibly “Captain and Crew First” may actually reduce panic and may result in much higher survival rates for women and children also. It may not be the kind of goal that increases survival; it may simply be the fact that an achievable goal exists.