U.Va. Survey Sheds New Light on Decision-Making of Workers in an Emergency

September 8, 2011 — On the heels of an earthquake that was felt from New York to Georgia, and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a University of Virginia survey shows that people with knowledge of workplace and school emergency plans are more likely to follow official instructions in the event of an emergency.

"The study underscores the need for businesses and schools to have strong emergency plans in place and to make sure those plans are communicated and understood," said Michael Cline, state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

A survey this spring of more than 800 workers residing in the National Capital Region – Northern Virginia, Maryland suburbs and the District of Columbia – conducted for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, found that most people would shelter in place at their workplace following a terrorist "dirty bomb" attack if told to do so, said Thomas M. Guterbock, director of U.Va.'s Center for Survey Research, which conducted the study.

Respondents indicated several reasons why they would leave work, Guterbock said, including loss of phone communication with a loved one, lack of knowledge of a workplace emergency plan and lack of knowledge or confidence in a school emergency plan.

In recent emergencies in the region, such as the Aug. 23 earthquake, the sudden rush of workers seeking to return home or contact their loved ones resulted in traffic gridlock and overloaded cell phone services.

"The findings of our survey can help guide policy and planning in the region so that more workers choose to stay at work in an emergency to ensure continuity of critical operations, prevent gridlock on roadways, keep the phones up and running, and reduce the spread of radioactive particles in certain types of emergencies, for instance," Guterbock said.

The survey collected information about respondents' preferred methods of communications, both under normal conditions and in an emergency situation. In the event of an emergency, three-fourths of the respondents would use cell phone calls to contact loved ones. Only about half of the participants knew that voice calls placed more of a burden on cell phone networks than text messages, Guterbock noted.

The survey also asked respondents about the extent to which their workplaces were prepared for an emergency and how they would react if an emergency occurred while they were at work. Their responses:
•    Almost half report that their workplace definitely has an emergency plan prepared, and seven in 10 say their workplace either definitely or probably has such a plan.
•    Two-thirds of respondents are very confident that they would be able to shelter at their workplace in the event of an emergency.
•    Respondents who work in high-rise buildings, or for larger enterprises, are more confident that their workplace has an emergency plan and that they could safely shelter at work than are respondents who work in smaller buildings or smaller businesses.
•    Confidence in the existence of a workplace emergency plan is roughly correlated with the workplace's proximity to the District of Columbia.
•    Workers who reported that their workplace "definitely" has an emergency plan, and parents who were very confident that their child's school could provide care, were both much more likely to shelter in place than those who provided other responses.

The survey also asked respondents with children living in their household to gauge the extent to which their children's schools were prepared to handle an emergency. Their responses:

•    Parents most often receive information regarding emergencies at their children's school via telephone communication.
•    Eight of 10 parents report that their child's school either definitely or probably has an emergency plan in place; however, a large proportion of parents are unaware of the details of the plan.
•    The majority of parents feel confident that their children's schools could take care of the children for 24 hours or longer.
•    The main concerns that parents would have regarding leaving their child at school during an emergency would be that their child would become afraid or that the school would lack necessary resources.

— By Rebecca Arrington

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Assistant Director of Media Relations Office of University Communications