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Normalcy bias and Protect Duty

In his memoir The Art of the Possible, the Conservative politician Rab Butler told of how as a junior Foreign Office minister he was in the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street, as war was declared on Sunday, September 3, 1939. The Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, and (as the result of a false alarm, as Butler recorded) ‘the air was rent by a terrible wailing’, Butler recalled. He wrote:

‘That is an air raid warning,’ announced Chamberlain quite calmly. We all laughed, and somebody said, ‘It would be funny if it were.’ He repeated several times, like a school-teacher dinning a lesson into a class of late developers, ‘That is an air-raid warning.’ Then Mrs Chamberlain [the PM’s wife] appeared in the doorway with a large basket containing books, Thermos flasks, gas-masks [the great fear before the Second World War was of poison gas attacks on civilians] and other aids to waiting, and everybody began to make their way to the War room through the basement of number 10.

Butler found himself alone in the Cabinet room and crossed Downing Street, ‘which was by then deserted’, to take shelter in the Foreign Office, ‘and we sat on the floor, there being no furniture’.

Besides a story of Britain’s unpreparedness for war in 1939, it’s a classic example of ‘normalcy bias’, as raised by a speaker in yesterday’s “protecting people in crowded places’ conference at The London Stadium by the Security Institute’s special interest group (SIG) for crowded places.

The speaker was Eric Stuart, the former Met Police man now director of the crowd safety contractor Gentian Events, and chair of the UK Crowd Management Association (UKCMA). Older people more than the young may wait to see how others react, not wanting to over-react, not wanting to leave a laptop or otehr valuables behind, or leaving a half-typed email unsent, or a computer left on; even though the alarm – whether in an office as on 9-11, or while in a passenger jet – may demand swift evacuation. Event planners have to make better plans, Eric Stuart suggested, for the people being managed.

It was an intriguing and seldom-considered part of response to a terrorism or other incident, for all the discussion about Martyn’s Law – a legal responsibility for venues and ‘publicly accessible locations’, PALs, to counter terrorism – and what such a Protect Duty might look like.

Eric Stuart went over the ‘four Ps’ of the UK Government strategy to counter terror, and suggested that the ‘Prepare’ strand is the only one of the four where private security could focus on. Hence ‘normalcy bias’ as something to overcome, and the idea of teaching staff about what to do, when things go wrong.

While hesitating doing anything or making for an exit to evacuate in the event of a fire alarm is human nature for some – many people needing ‘persuasion time’ – it held true even when something as extreme happened as airliners crashed into the World Trade Center on 9-11, as Stuart recalled.

As he said, none of us wake up, expecting to be in a terror attack; we assume such things won’t happen to us. A Protect Duty will expect us to be prepared, for the unthinkable. Another example of how crowd safety has to be aware of psychology is ‘return route syndrome’, whereby we tend to choose to leave a venue by the way we came in – maybe even if a fire or other extreme incident is in the way.

While detail about the Protect Duty remains to be released by the Home Office, it’s been largely assumed by the security industry that it will have to do more of the physical stuff – such as target hardening (hostile vehicle mitigation – HVM, bollards), bag searches at entrances to venues, risk assessment, staff training. Eric Stuart was suggesting a psychological dimension – and the need for some thought leadership.

While he spoke of hating the phrase ‘think outside the box’, that was his point; that event security and stewarding managers must not suffer from a failure of imagination, as the United States’ official commission into 9-11 famously concluded when investigating the use of airliners as suicide terrorist weapons; and a failure as Eric Stuart suggested was the case – with exceptions – in the planning of the Euros football final at Wembley in July, that saw widespread disorder, due to many thousands of ticketless fans turning up outside and seeking to enter the stadium. Eric Stuart was among the authors contributing to Baroness Casey’s review of the (as she wrote) partly ‘sadly foreseeable’ trouble, around English football’s biggest day since the 1966 World Cup final.

The crowded places SIG plans to hold further events such as webinars.

About Eric Stuart

He’s also the chair of the Event Safety Alliance, an umbrella group of English-speaking world event security bodies such as the UKCMA. See podcast at

For the Baroness Casey review for the Football Association published in December into the Wembley disorder, including Eric Stuart’s study of the ‘near miss’ in crowd safety terms, visit

Picture by Mark Rowe; outside Wembley during the Euros last summer.


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