The Case for Credentialing – The Spontaneous Bystander

First, we have the genuine thing, the spontaneous bystander, who sees a need for action, then does something about it.  Rescue911 commented on the story of the Good Samaritan and how a traveler, with no reason to do so other than to help his fellow man, went out of the way to assist another.  This lends a certain amount of credibility to the discussion that nothing should prohibit people who wish to help others in their time of need.  Now realize, of course, when I am referring to these individuals, I am referring to people who just have a desire to help their neighbors and do the right thing.

 Quarantelli discusses the social aspects of the emergent response of spontaneous bystanders in Katrina, but also in the Guadalajara gasoline spill and fire.  There is also discussion on the subject by Kirschenbaum that the current philosophy of governmental and NGO response to disasters effectively dilutes the response of neighbors and has resulted in an over-reliance on these agencies to provide assistance.  After all, man has been besieged by disasters since time immemorial and it’s not like they had FEMA to come to the rescue back in biblical times.

There’s something very beautiful (albeit, chaotic) in the spontaneous response of the altruistcally motivated.  But call me skeptical, I see a lot of response from people who claim that altruism is their motive, but I’m not seeing that generosity of spirit coming out when they’re busy operating video cameras to sell tape to the media or taking souvenirs, rather than manning a sand-bag line.  More about THAT kind of person later.

There are indeed a few challenges with this kind of emergent response, problems that if resolved, would go a long way toward goodwill with the community in general (it seems like everyone’s got some kind of beef with FEMA in every disaster, despite their extraordinary efforts to educate people that they need to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on the government), and provide resources to the jurisdictionally responsible agencies that seem to be strapped for bodies when the big one rolls around to their neighborhood.

The main problem faced by those of us in the disaster community when it comes to spontaneous response, is the fact that as the designated adult supervision at these events, we have a responsibility to insure not only mitigation (or depending on the complexity and scope, control) of the incident, but the safety of those who were not necessarily part of the problem before, but now are. 

Let’s step down a wee bit and look at it from the perspective of the first-due engine arriving at the scene of a water rescue.  Let’s even go further to relieve the complication of the situation, and let’s say this is a static water body and it’s just one person involved.  Now I understand that the vast majority of those of you reading the are responders, so bear with me as I educate those who are not.

If, as the officer of the first arriving fire apparatus on scene, we have a single person in need of assistance in a pond (or lagoon as we call them here on Hilton Head Island), it’s really just a cut-and-dried approach to the situation.  Providing we have the resources (water rescue equipment, trained and prepared personnel), it’s a matter of assessing the scene, determining the problem, solving and planning a solution, and putting the solution into action.

Our problem, however, is that more often than not, it isn’t that easy.  In a lot of cases, when we roll up, there are people in the water trying to make a rescue.  In a lot of cases, one or two of these people are now ALSO in distress.  There are bystanders who are interfering with the operation because they don’t understand that standing for a second and looking over the scene for additional hazards is necessary so that we ourselves don’t also become part of the problem (“WHY AREN’T YOU DOING SOMETHING?!!!”).  There are those who parked their vehicle in our way so they could get a better look.  These days there are people video taping so they can sell it to the media or even better, catch you doing something wrong.  Without beating this horse too much, suffice it to say that there are a whole lot of other things going on here.

Now how, you might ask, does this apply to me as a spontaneous responder?  Well, the video taping and the access issues aside (you are a Good Samaritan, after all), let’s go to that first issue: those of you in the water.  Think for a moment, while you are in front of your computer, why this person got into trouble to begin with.  It might very well mean that they can’t swim.  It might be, however, that there is another danger you don’t see.  Thus the need for experienced and equipped responders who can provide an effective rescue.  There is an oft-quoted saying in the confined space rescue community, that 50% of the victims in confined space emergencies are the first responders.  These are often well-intentioned, but less-than-educated or undisciplined responders who failed to take into account the dangers associated with space entry themselves.

My whole reason for saying this is that while most of us in the response community can certainly appreciate the bystander response to an emergency, there are cases upon cases in every aspect of disaster and technical rescue response where the spontaneous bystander response in and of itself became an additional rescue mission for us on our arrival.

So, how can the person who doesn’t have a desire to be part of an organized response help?  Take CPR and first aid courses.  Attend a seminar on what to do in a disaster.  Know that there are other ways to help (“throw, tow, row” come to mind BEFORE “go”).  Put your name on a volunteer reserve list or call your local jurisdiction and ask if there is some way to help if needed.  But more importantly than anything, when you are inclined to go and help, if the legally authorized incident commander (or their designee) gives you an assignment, no matter how mundane, it is what they DO need done for the management of the incident.  You may not understand or appreciate the IC’s request, but in our eyes, there may very well be a method of allowing you to contribute at your level of expertise and to permit your contributions without adding to the complexity of the situation (when something goes wrong and you aren’t equipped or prepared).

This all being said, in times of disaster, people do want to help and the response community has to be proactive enough to have a mechanism for channeling the energy of these responders.  The big issue in my eyes is to make sure people know in advance what they can do, create programs to educate lay responders, and tap them when you can to promote interest.  Furthermore, it is a good practice to identify a place they can report to and get information on them, credential them to the extent possible, and assign them according to their quickly-identified expertise.

I will tie this into the argument about credentialing later, but this is the first discussion regarding the “interested parties” against the argument for credentialing, so be on the lookout for the next post.  Thanks and feel free to comment or help illustrate your view on the subject.

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