Thursday, January 14, 2016

How should we restructure 'first responder' emergency services in a world where they're now the second responders?

It's fairly widely acknowledged throughout the emergency community that due to the rise in citizen use of technology, emergency services are now rarely the first on the scene of a disaster.

Most emergencies are first publicly highlighted on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another social media platforms as people proximate to the situation take photos and share messages, often even before anyone bothers to call an emergency hotline.

Once information about an emergency is shared online it can attract individuals, to assist or gawk, and by the time a 'First Responder' reaches the scene, there may be teams working to rectify the situation, whether officially qualified or not.

For large emergency and disaster scenarios, online systems may also appear with surprising rapidity. Donation-taking sites, rehousing services, advice and support lines and even running video and text commentary can be in place within minutes of a significant disaster.

The effect of this is that emergency services are no longer the first responders to the majority of emergencies, and often arrive at a scene with less information about the situation than citizens have already collected and shared online.

Even where citizens are not the first onsite, they may still become a major channel for sharing information - correct or not - about the emergency, as was observed during the Boston Marathon bombing (refer to the trailer for a new documentary on this below).

So how should emergency services and governments respond to an environment when they are no longer the first responders?

While there's been some discussion of this across the emergency community, there's been precious few changes to the protocols or approaches of emergency services to take advantage of their new status in a positive way.

Other than discouraging citizens from getting involved (as they're not qualified and may take the wrong steps), and a few efforts to bring some citizen social media intelligence into emergency centres, there's been little done to provide new tools and systems for supporting voluntary emergency support activities by the general public.

Some of this, perhaps most of this, is related to slow change within these services. It's hard for lifelong emergency service specialists to acknowledge that their role is changing - some still struggle with some of the modern tools for managing emergencies, let along with groups of citizens pitching in to help.

Some is also undoubtably connected with the risks of having unskilled volunteers onsite at some of the worst disasters. Many people don't understand or appreciate the potential dangers they face, or the complications they can cause to emergency services should a well-intentioned effort to help become another person needing rescue and resources.

However this situation is not likely to go away. Citizens are now firmly established as the first people onscene in most emergencies, and it is impractical to expect that at least some of them won't try to help and illogical to expect that no-one will broadcast unfolding events via digital channels.

It is a good time for emergency services to consider how to direct all that volunteer energy in productive ways. What tasks can citizens do at the site of a situation that will help pave the way for the 'second responder' emergency services when they arrive?

These tasks are likely to change by emergency type, however it is possible to provide basic guidance via social channels and via apps as to what steps will help preserve lives and property rather than increase the danger and difficulty of given emergencies.

With the right approach and support tools, emergency services can enlist citizens as a support workforce, able to set a perimeter, collect location-specific data and even, where safe, help address and transport the injured to appropriate services, allowing emergency workers to concentrate on the more difficult wounds and tasks.

Tools such as a 'Tinder' app for medical professionals could help quickly locate appropriately qualified personnel nearby who can lend a hand, prior or after emergency services arrive. The same approach could be used for people with specific skills useful in emergencies - from former and off-duty firefighter to army reservists, specialists in communication or the use of specific tools.

There's likely a range of other approaches that can be used to help direct the energy of the general public into supporting emergency services in effective ways, and its time for emergency services to unbend, recognise that the environment has changed, and think outside the square as to how citizens can be more than dangerous nuisances at an emergency scene.

The real risk now is that emergency services cling to their past 'first responder' status and dismiss the skills and capabilities of the public. This will only increase the danger in future scenarios where well-meaning citizens, denied effective leadership and instruction by emergency professionals, take unnecessary risks when helping emergency victims and scale up the extent of these disasters.

Regardless of whether emergency services choose to recognise that they're no longer the first responders in most disasters, or keep their heads firmly in the sand, we're likely to continue to see citizens be the first responders, and once on-scene helping in the ways they think they can and should.

Whether these citizens are assets or liabilities in any specific emergency comes down to how the professional emergency services support and lead them, but they will come none-the-less.

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