Viewing the public as de facto first responders simply acknowledges what is a reality in many disasters. Even if the public do not respond in any official, organized or meaningful way, they are present. A member of the public is often the one who reports the incident by various means, including yelling for help, dialling emergency numbers, flagging down emergency vehicles or directing responders. This is a distinct role that the public play, separate from their other roles as victims, relatives and so on.
The public are usually orderly and do not display the cliché responses of shock and panic. They usually respond well and quickly before official responders arrive. Individuals often function better than organizations do. The public can be a valuable resource during disasters.
In the King’s Cross Underground (subway) fire in London, one passenger alerted the ticket office of the danger. Another passenger made a second report to London Transport (LT) staff a few minutes later. A third passenger shouted warnings to other passengers, alerted police and pressed the STOP button on the escalator. The official inquiry into the disaster noted that in one 14-day period in the month before the fire, there were 463 verified and unverified cases where the public notified LT staff of problems with the escalator. LT staff ignored most of these reports. Rather than ignore the public, it would be better to educate staff and responders to the value of information that the public may have.
However, there are dangers in untrained but enthusiastic response.Moving the injured can cause further injury, particularly spinal damage. Reporting a fire is one thing, but trying to fight it is another. Throwing water on electrical fires can electrocute responders and bystanders. Spraying water on an oil fire can spread the flames. Some combustible materials create invisible flames and the danger of inhaling white-hot air and walking into the flames.
In the Sakhalin Island earthquake of 1995, many of the lay responderstrying to assist actually moved large pieces of debris into the eventual path of the official response vehicles. Despite their good intentions, they probably hampered response.
In natural disasters, emergency services themselves can be disabled. In the Sakhalin incident about two thirds of the local police officers and medical personnel were killed and many others were injured. Lay response can be the first and, occasionally, the only response possible.
‘Extending’ organizations emerge when community resources are called on to perform non-traditional roles in a disaster. These groups take on unusual tasks using their existing expertise. A mining-company knows how to move earth and rock and thus can clear debris. The armed forces are used to following orders and getting tasks done despite difficult circumstances. ‘Emergent’ groups are ones that didn’t exist before the disaster but are formed to tackle tasks new to them. These might include volunteer search and rescue, first aid or meal preparation. This is seen in oil spills, when local fishing-boats serve as water taxis ferrying workers and gear to where they are needed. Besides the bystanders who respond by chance, many other members of the public will belong to one of the above groups and thus can be recruited as de facto responders.
Admittedly the world has become more specialized with a greater division of labour. Professionals may rightly cite the need for specific training and equipment to deal with crises. The correct stance on how valuable lay response can be depends on the person, the disaster and other factors. Both the trained professional and the lay person need to be heard and involved. Training for unofficial responders can develop more skills and thus a more effective response.