Posts Tagged ‘emergency response’

Most people in the developed world rely on the authorities for most of their basic needs, be it daily needs, such as healthcare, or emergency response, such as forest fires.

Healthcare professionals are intent that we, as individuals, take a more active attitude in preserving our health. Obviously, those most interested in preserving our health is we ourselves.

Is it the same when we face emergencies? Do we take responsibility for acting as knowledgeable first-responders in case of an emergency? I want to underline KNOWLEDGABLE; I am not talking about acting for the sake of acting. Most of those impromptu UNKNOWLEDGEABLE actions are nothing more than running around like headless chickens, making noise without any contribution to ameliorating the consequences of the event.

This is the gordian knot of emergency prevention and response: should citizens be the first first-responders in case of an emergency? Taking control of our lives seems to be a good winning strategy; consequently I would say that citizens should be able to respond efficiently in case of an emergency. They are in the front line of the incident. If they know how to behave, critical time can be gained with a prompt and efficient response before professionals arrive.

Furthermore, a knowledgeable citizenry is essential in the prevention stage. Forest fires could be prevented if people take responsibility for keeping forests clean, clearing up plastic bags, glass bottles, underbrush and so forth.

Assuming, as I and most people do, that informed citizens should be a goal in our societies, why is it that in developed countries -with the possible exception of Japan- authorities have been neglecting actions to train citizens in emergency prevention and response? I don’t have the answer, but something should be done soon if we don´t want to hear again “our response emergency protocols should be re-evaluated”.

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Dealing with the unexpected is always difficult. It is difficult for the individual, and it is more difficult for society. Faced with the unexpected, predicting how people behave becomes almost impossible.

Imagine a building on fire. A lot of individuals will shout out the window for help, making the situation more problematic. Others will run to save their relatives, endangering more lives. Some individuals will even try to be heroes, but with out the proper training and equipment they will end joining the body count. Hopefully, some of the individuals will stay calm, close all windows and doors, and wait for the fire department to arrive; these will be the ones who will, most probably, survive. There is another group of individuals, those who will have their minute of glory in the evening news, reporting on all the things that they haven’t seen and spreading false information or, if you prefer, “fake news”.

How can we make a mass of people behave in a rational way? How can we be certain that people, when faced with the unexpected, will react in a way that will not cause more harm?

I can only think of one solution, and it is something that has been tried for centuries: teaching people how to behave. In other words: prevention. Certainly, prevention has been on the menu for a long time and, still, few people act rationally. We must conclude that the way we are trying to bring prevention to people is not the correct way or, alternatively, we are not reaching most individuals.

Since public authorities and NGOs spend quite a few euros on prevention campaigns, let’s not assume they do not know what they are doing. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few examples of very good media campaigns. We are going to focus on the second cause: not reaching most people. We have reached a level of information about almost anything that, to say the least, is overwhelming. But most of the time we must look for the information, the information does not come to us. The information is there but we will seek it out only if we are aware of our needs.

Take earthquakes: Unless we live in certain areas of the world, no one will seek information about how to behave in case of an earthquake. The result is that in San Francisco only very strong earthquakes cause human casualties, but a mild earthquake in south-eastern Spain in 2011 caused 9 deaths and 324 injured. Why? Because we, as a society, have failed to reach out to every individual in the region.

Reaching out to each individual and transmitting proper behavior in case of an unexpected situation should be the main objective of Civil Protection (Civil Defense in some countries). It means making effective use of the risk maps that most countries have; identifying the most vulnerable individuals within the area; and reaching out to those individuals and the population at large so that they know how to behave in case of emergency. No small task, but until we devise an effective system to accomplish that, every time there is an incident, there will be talk about “we should update our protocols for emergency response” and real prevention will be, again, forgotten.

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