First Responders comprise not only officials and professionals from the various emergency services, disaster agencies, local authority and health services, but also the general public (Clark, 2003). In fact some reports suggest that in many disasters, the public makes up a numerically larger proportion of first responders, assisting with rescue work and elementary disaster relief as well as an assortment of professional activities (Westgate, 1975). For example, in the case of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 it was estimated that 99 per cent of the rescue work was carried out by local people (R. Shaw, Summer 1999).
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Although there have been few systematic studies of flight and evacuation patterns in the immediate post-impact phase of a disaster, reports have frequently described the public running towards the disaster site in order to help as well as escaping away from it, or else returning to the site in order to assist others, after initially fleeing (R. Shaw, Summer 1999; Westgate, 1975).
In the case of the Nypro (UK) chemical plant disaster at Flixborough, in June 1974, thirty per cent of evacuees returned to the site after fleeing, in many cases assisting injured colleagues to escape (Westgate, 1975). In some disasters local community residents—neighbours, friends, and co-workers—may carry out the majority of live rescues, because it can take time for the emergency services to arrive, while outside search and rescue teams principally find dead bodies rather than living people (R. Shaw, Summer 1999; K. J. Tierney, 2003).
Volunteer helping behaviour can persist after the initial post-impact phase. In the eighteen days following the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the Red Cross received 22,000 offers of help from the public (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003). The fact that volunteering behaviour appears consistently in disaster situations has led some commentators to reassess the perspective that views the public as a problem to be dealt with in disaster situations, in favour of one that sees them as an asset to be drawn on (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003). Accordingly, concern over whether volunteers will be forthcoming in future disasters should be reframed in terms of how to manage the voluntary behaviour that will inevitably occur (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003; Lowe & Fothergill, 2003).
How do the public become first responders
There are three principal ways by which the public become first responders: as victims themselves, through spontaneous convergence on the disaster site, and through mobilization by volunteer and disaster agencies.
Victims are by definition likely to be first on the scene and there are many reports in the literature of their altruistic behaviour such as interrupting their personal flight in order to help and rescue other victims (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003; R. Shaw, Summer 1999; Westgate, 1975). For example, a detailed study of the behaviour of victims in the Nypro (UK) chemical plant disaster at Flixborough, in June 1974, found that victims assisted other injured people who were together with them at the time of the disaster, or who were in their personal flight path, or when they knew the location of specific victims (Westgate, 1975).
The local community and other civilians frequently converge on the disaster site in the immediate aftermath for a number of reasons, including mere curiosity (See Section 3.7) (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003). However, many are highly motivated to help and can be an important source of assistance, bearing in mind that their presence is entirely voluntary (Clizbe, 2003).
Volunteers can have a clear idea of what needs to be done immediately, such as search and rescue, or assisting with emergency transportation to hospital. For example in the case of the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, 4000 victims were transported to hospital in taxis and private vehicles (or on foot) compared to 688 by ambulance (Okumura et al., 1998). Similar assistance with transportation by local residents during the Flixborough disaster was reported by the Humberside police (Humberside-Police, 1975) and features in US disasters generally (K. J. Tierney, 2003).
Alternatively, the public will volunteer in accordance with their pre-disaster roles including gender, work, and leadership roles. They are not necessarily risk averse in a disaster situation (K. J. Tierney, 2003) Some volunteers can be more trained than paid staff and may do expert work such as counselling of victims and other workers (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003; K. J. Tierney, 2003).
Volunteer, community and disaster agencies, such as the Red Cross, provide another source of public first responders (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003; Humberside-Police, 1975). In some disasters, such as the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11th the majority of volunteers may be activated using emergency response procedures, rather than arriving haphazardly or unannounced (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003).
There appears to be little research on the personal and contextual characteristics predicting disaster volunteering (as opposed to volunteering in general). However, it offers similar rewards, and possibly additional ones. Volunteers at the September 11th disaster reported a compelling need to help, to the extent that they lied to officials in order to be able to do something. One possibility is that a psychological process of personalization and identification with the disaster and disaster victims (e.g., “we’re all in this together”) predicts volunteering behaviour (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003; Westgate, 1975). However, public convergence and volunteering may to some extent be culturally bound; mass volunteering was not seen in Japan before the Kobe earthquake in 1995 (Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001a), and most reports deal with US disasters.
However volunteering appears to serve some positive functions both for individuals and for communities. Individuals volunteering in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks found it empowering and therapeutic, possibly because it allowed them to redefine the situation more positively through action and interpretation. In this sense volunteers are also victims who are benefited by being allowed to volunteer (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003). Volunteering is therapeutic for the community as a whole and should be planned for in ways that allow those who do not have obvious skills to also volunteer (e.g., in off-scene work) to fulfil the need to do something.
There is a general consensus in the literature about the need for management of volunteers in the disaster situation, so as to ensure that they do not impede the work of professional first responders and also to maximise the opportunities and assets that the public may provide. In the case of the September 11th attacks, the Red Cross were able to process 15,000 volunteers in 18 days, but a further 7,000 offers were received (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003). A report into the human response to the Flixborough disaster concluded that, given the right materials and equipment (e.g., first aid materials, tea-making, telephones etc) in a safe position, “much of the primary work in elementary disaster relief will be carried out by the disaster stricken themselves to others in the same situation” (Westgate, 1975).
Large disaster situations are likely to present very complex scenarios, and the public can complement the resources of the professional first responders. In large scale disasters, volunteers are best used in their locality where they can provide knowledge of the local community and geography, and how to get things done locally. In this way, they can help to reduce the complexity of the situation (Clizbe, 2003; Lowe & Fothergill, 2003). However, one US study concluded that communities value local help, but that outsider help is necessary to correct for possible norms and biases, for example in the distribution of help, that flow from lines of power and social divisions. For example, local responses to elderly people may be sensitive to getting them help for medical complaints and injury, but not for restoring their property.
It is because of shared norms that local help may be particularly valued by victims, but nevertheless there is an important need for their work to be managed and coordinated by outside agencies. The report into the crash of Flight 93 at Shanksville on September 11th concluded that there was a need for those involved in emergency management education and training to build a greater understanding of how volunteer emergency response personnel and non-voluntary disaster site personnel navigate conflict and bureaucracy and find ways to cooperate with each other in the emergent post-impact disaster period (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003). Management and coordination involves selection and training of volunteers and allocation to specific tasks including tasks that can be taken off paid workers.
Volunteer protection and pre-planning
At the same time, adequate protection of volunteers (including psychological protection) needs to be catered for (Clizbe, 2003). Pre-planning in using the community as a resource is recommended in several reports. This can involve identifying existing demographic groups (e.g., retired professional people, and students who often have some training in their eventual profession), skills groups (e.g., from local companies), community groups and voluntary organizations; forming linkages among groups; providing training and exercises, and engaging them in the disaster pre-planning process (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003; Lowe & Fothergill, 2003; K. J. Tierney, 2003; R. Wraith & Gordon, 1988).