Evacuation – this is not a drill!

Well that was a first…!

I was recently doing a keynote speaking session, held at a Sydney hotel, when mid-session we were evacuated due to smoke billowing out of the light fixtures and air conditioning vents. This is not something I am used to happening in the middle of my sessions, to say the least! However, it was quite timely as I’d just finished explaining how our brain (and the amygdala in particular) works when we are in a threatening situations. Luckily, my resilience to unknown circumstances is on point. My audience, on the other hand, initially thought I was joking and had set the smoke up…when I explained my husband is a firefighter and would strangle me if I didn’t evacuate them all, they realised it wasn’t a joke!

What can we learn from this?

In all seriousness, we really were in a life-threatening situation. We were unaware of the cause of the smoke and therefore had no idea of its severity. It was interesting to see how people reacted during the event. Within 60 seconds of smelling the smoke, I stopped my presentation and asked the audience if they could smell it too. In that small amount of time, the smoke floating around the spotlights on me went from misty to thick enough to impact vision and breathing. The smell was electrical and intense, and our window of opportunity to make a decision was limited. I called for everyone to stand and leave as calmly as possible. No one became panicked, hysterical or emotional. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Most people thought it was amusing and were joking. They took their time exiting not only the conference room but the hotel in general. Some even made their way to gather belongings, pick up luggage etc.

Now, thankfully the cause of the incident was a non-threatening car fire in a nearby street, not within the hotel at all. The smoke from the car had been sucked into the hotel’s air conditioning system and distributed throughout. Everyone was safe and no one was hurt. It was interesting, however, to see how something potentially life threatening could be treated with such flippant entertainment, yet we quite often spend large amounts of our energy focusing on other things which are either avoidable, unhelpful or not required.

Resilience and different stress triggers

As I mentioned, I was very aware of the seriousness of the situation and the potential outcomes if we didn’t act. Our levels of resilience will be different for each individual, and what triggers one person won’t necessarily even rate on the significance scale for another, and vice versa. While most of the audience were calm, there were a few people who were up and out the door before I’d even made it off the stage. There were also people still sitting in their seats as I walked past and encouraged them to head outside.

There were people gathering their belongings from other rooms. There were people standing around joking and asking if it was all part of my presentation. As I got outside, there was a general mood of calm and relief – be it relief we were outside and nothing bad had happened, or the fact the day was probably done now and they could go home.

Regardless, the different levels of resilience were very visible showcasing each individual’s reaction and, therefore behaviour and actions, towards the incident. For me, it was an interesting example of how an incident, activity, or task can cause an individual to have one reaction at one end of the scale yet cause another to not even blink an eye at the other end. Our resilience will shape our actions and reactions when in threatening situations. It also highlights that what one person considers to be a threatening situation, can be comical and entertaining for another. In a less life-threatening situation, say like a change of target on a project or a loss of a key client, you can then start to see why some people react a certain way while others will be totally different. Our levels of resilience and the significance we place on these situations will all differ.

Don’t get me wrong, generally (as they say) where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And if you’re asked to evacuate, just do it. Be mindful though, just because your amygdala isn’t threatened by something, someone else’s could be!