The Guardian

Don’t panic! Meet the experts with a steady hand when catastrophe strikes

In an extreme life-or-death situation, would you be able to hold your nerve? Candice Pires speaks to the people whose job it is to make snap decisions in disaster situations
Calm yourself: staying focussed is key to your ability to think and perform clearly. Photograph: set design Kyle Bean; photographer Sara Morris for the Observer

I was sitting on a remote beach with my husband and friends when our five-year-old daughter came running towards us screaming. She had a gash on her forehead and blood was streaming down her face. I felt sick and yelped, and then remembered I had to comfort her. My husband and I looked at each other and at her. For a second we didn’t know what to do. Then it clicked that we had to take her to a hospital. But we had no phone reception. We decided to head to where we thought the nearest town was. On the drive, between making up stories to distract my daughter and checking my phone for signal, I kept thinking back to the interviews, below, which I had been working on before the accident. Each of the interviewees makes quick decisions in extreme circumstances for a living. In those few minutes, I had experienced some of the tunnel vision they describe. I began by speaking to Dr Sara Waring at the University of Liverpool who researches decision-making in critical and major incidents, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Waring stresses that one of the most important things that makes someone good at making decisions in circumstances where they have very little information and very little time, is practice. “The more experienced you get at making decisions, the quicker you get at making them,” she says. Experience equips you to fill in the gaps at the start of an incident when information is lacking, and also to weed out important information when it comes flooding in later on. She also talks about how our relationship with uncertainty affects our abilities. People who are nervous about uncertainty can make quick decisions because they want to get them out of the way, but they often do it without enough

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