From my teenage ambition of becoming a forest firefighter, in 2002, I volunteered for the Santa Barbara Sherriff Department’s Search and Rescue team (SAR). My day job did not manifest into the firefighter I thought I would become, but SAR gave me the opportunity to explore that second life’s ambition. Eventually, this teenage heroic dream job would find its way into the mainstream of my college education, adult life, and my current scholarly work in information design.
In order to become an active SAR volunteer, a person was required to dedicate one year to SAR academy and complete various certifications—from rappelling to avalanche rescues. Swift Water Rescue consisted of an intensive weekend in classroom and textbook work and prototype exercises and ended with river rescue training at the Kern River in Class III rapids, just one mile upstream from Class IV rapids. Classes measure the intensity, predictability and strength of river current, so these were relatively intense, unpredictable, strong currents. This last exercise, which took place in a real-life simulation, proved to be an introduction to my personal unconscious personality, the discovery of temporary cognitive paralysis, and effects on information comprehension and retention under significant amounts of stress.
When the SAR team entered the water, we were assigned a very basic and introductory exercise: to swim the width of a soccer field to get to the other side of the riverbank. There was a strong, steady current, and as I entered the water, what I noticed most was seeing and hearing the white rapids about fifty yards downstream. I was in a kind of daydream, numb and unaware. I approached the current at a direct 90 degrees—instead of the 45 degrees that would have given me leverage against the current—and was swept away as quickly as the rapids took me. I lost both my fins and my right water shoe, and cold water rushed into my unzipped wetsuit. I had only attached two of the three buckles on my life vest. I did not tighten my helmet; it hung to the side of my head. Quickly, the simulation training transitioned into a full-blown “code blue” rescue—a rescue of me.
I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do, even though I’d already learned and memorized the lessons well. I panicked and tried to stand up, which is a deadly reaction because feet get caught in loose rock anchoring a person to the bottom of the riverbed. My worst attempt was trying to grab filters. One of the most memorable chapters in the textbook deals directly with this. Filters are branches on the sides of the riverbank that act as vacuums causing people to get dragged under. The rescue lasted eight minutes and 52 seconds. I was collected, assessed, and placed on the riverbank, barefoot, still numb and unaware.
Danger triggered my unconscious personality—a theory from Gestave Le Bon’s The Crowd about how people react irrationally, emotionally and in exaggeration to danger no matter what prior or current intellectual ability a person posses (2002). Entering the water unprepared and unaware, regardless of my previous training, demonstrated temporary cognitive paralysis—the common idea that people freeze in an emergency.
Five years following that awe-awakening experience, my current scholarly work applies issues in cognition and emergency psychology when assessing semiotics and visualization used in public evacuation information. People who are asked to evacuate an aircraft, a public building, or their personal residence will be under a various amount of cognitive demands, susceptible to temporary cognitive disorder or paralysis. Visual and written instructions, just as in verbal strategies, need to be clear, concise, and authoritative in order to be effective.
Graphic variables (i.e. type, texture, hierarchy, orientation, color, shape), external and internal components, and “rules of legibility” as defined by Jaques Bertin in Semiology of Graphics (1983) were assessed in city and aircraft evacuation material. As an example, the image below shows three sections from city evacuation maps demonstrating various usages of the color variable. The color variable performs differently in its relationship to direction, legibility, coding, and labeling. In the first map, the color variable is highly saturated and overcomes text in significant areas of the map. The second map uses color to communicate zoning areas for city official use, but is not usable to the evacuee. The texture and orientation of color constantly interferes with the intension and reading of this map. The third map uses the least amount of color and is most relevant and assessable to the person reading this map for evacuation.
I’ve reviewed two approaches of evacuation information, which provide juxtapositional perspectives and outcomes in visual representation and effectiveness of communication, planning, and training.
City evacuation maps were not consistent in content or visual execution. Level of detail, viewpoints, and way-showing were fundamentally diversified. It is also worth noting that resident evacuation material is usually not accessed until the moment of need—people don’t study the maps ahead of time.
Aircraft safety cards were more narrative in the delivery of information, and content was consistent. Repetition was an advantage to the frequent flyer due to FAA regulations of safety review before takeoff.
I always tell my design students “design with empathy.” People who are asked to evacuate are under distress and comprised levels of intellectual planning, orientation, and comprehension. These campaigns need to deliver the message and account for issues in time limitations, stress, and the psychology of well-being. I know what this means because of my own rescue experience, so I emphasize that necessary empathy when I work with students as well as in my own design projects.