Factors affecting First Responder Turnout in Disaster

The scale of the problem

The extent to which first responders turn out in the event of an emergency is an important concern since significant failure to turn out and commit would have wide implications for successfully dealing with an emergency. One suggestion is that turn out failure by emergency personnel is more likely under CBRN emergency conditions because of the greater difficulty in estimating their own personal risk.

An often-cited case occurred in the aftermath of the September 1994 earthquake in Surat, India, which resulted in a large increase in the visible rat population. Media accounts of a deadly plague led to widespread panic and mass fleeing that reportedly included 80% of local doctors, causing failure in the public health system. Total failure of government agencies and health care delivery system was in turn blamed for the collapse of community and local economy (J. A. Shaw & Shaw, 2004).

This article is an extract from my 82-page report "Psychological and Behavioural Responses to CBRN Disasters: Implications for emergency response, community, and business continuity" Get the full report...

However, other cases point in the opposite direction. In the case of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the first 28 fire fighters to arrive worked in direct proximity to the damaged reactor, knowing they were working in a highly radioactive area, but uncertain about the precise level of radiation and the health implications for themselves. Additional fire-fighters turned out from other areas (up to 150km away), even while the population was being evacuated. [Chernobyl: World Exclusive. Fire, Nov. 1987. ]

Causal factors

Role conflict has been identified as one potential cause of reduced turn out. Emergency responders have not only a professional role, but also domestic roles as parents and family members. The drive to protect one's family can be very strong during the initial phase of a disaster when little is known about the situation. Conflict between domestic and professional roles could lead to higher priority being given to responses that protect the family (Barton, 1969).

Role conflicts

However, one report by experienced authors who have researched over 100 disasters, and conducted interviews involving 2500 different organizational officials, failed to find role conflict to be a significant problem that created serious loss of manpower (Quarantelli, undated). Nevertheless, responders and providers will inevitably have concerns about the health and safety of their families while they are at the scene, which may impact upon their ability to perform their duties, and may be more prevalent in the case of CBRN incidents where uncertainties and fears may be greater (Butler, Panzer, & Goldfrank, 2003).

This conclusion may seem surprising given the heavy reliance on volunteer or reserve manpower in a disaster. Historically at least, the US has had a very high reliance on volunteer emergency firefighters and response personnel, estimated to be over 80% in 1981 (a more current estimate could not be found) (Gray, 1981). One explanation is that, while role strain is a normal part of life, it can be more restricted in a disaster because some roles are temporarily lifted. Most people's normal work roles are suspended, and the disaster provides positive reinforcement of their emergency role. Values and priorities change and an “emergency consensus” forms in communities, with families making decisions about who can be released for emergency work. This report suggests that the greater problem may be in organizing and managing excess potential personnel who are motivated to help but have no clear or pre-assigned role.


However, while low turn out may not be a problem in general, beliefs about low turn out may create problems. One report describes role abandonment by emergency personnel as a widespread and persistent myth among the public and emergency management officers alike despite research and personal experience to the contrary. Beliefs about role abandonment can undermine the warning process and the emergency response. For example, a warning message can be delayed because officials fear it will create disorganized panic. Public fear that emergency response personnel will not turn out to protect their property from looting can interfere with evacuation of an area (Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001b).


We found little discussion and empirical evidence on the specific issue of turn out and commitment in the surveyed literature, making a conclusion hard to reach. This is an area where further research may be needed, perhaps requiring data that is not in the public domain. One recommendation in the literature is to ameliorate first responders' concerns about their families by adopting approaches and services used by the armed forces to care for families while soldiers are deployed, including family readiness groups, and access to medical care and child care (Butler, Panzer, & Goldfrank, 2003). Furthermore, the provision of social and psychological support for families, including providing the means by which families can communicate with first responders at the scene, may in turn enhance the degree of support that the families themselves can provide to first responders.

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