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The real first responders: citizens?

Attacks in New York, Madrid, and London highlighted the role ordinary people play at terror scenes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 2005


As planning for terrorism becomes a part of daily life in the Western World, a growing number of disaster experts are calling for a dramatic reassessment in the way the nation plans for emergencies.

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The problem, they argue, is that the current top-down approach views the public as a problem to be managed rather than an asset to be utilized. Officials don't take into account people's natural willingness to help or address their most basic needs - like concern about the safety of their spouses and kids.

This upstart group of sociologists, physicians, and terrorism experts contends that the use of ordinary citizens during a large-scale emergency could save hundreds if not thousands of lives. And they are determined to ensure the public is properly prepared before the next catastrophic event.

"It's critical that we readjust our thinking. If you look at the 9/11 commission report they talked about first responders versus what they called 'civilians,' as if all of the civilians did was just stand at the sidelines," says Kathleen Tierney, the director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "That is so radically at variance with what actually happened that day."

For instance, right after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Diane Lapson, who lives nearby, ran to the local police precinct for help and was told by the lone officer manning it: "We can't help you, do what you have to do."

"That was a stunning experience, that moment was frozen for me," she says. "I thought, 'These are the people who are supposed to help us. So what do we do now?' We had to figure it out."

She spent the rest of the day helping evacuate the schools and move people uptown. For the next 10 days, she and others worked nonstop to ensure her 3,000 neighbors had food, water, and medicine, none of which was prepared for by emergency authorities in advance.

Again in London last week, citizens played the critical first roles because it took rescue workers as long as half an hour to reach victims like Paul Mitchell, whose leg was badly damaged. In the interim, he told the BBC, the passenger sitting across from him made a makeshift tourniquet and probably saved his life.

A year ago in Madrid, the first official help arrived 10 to 20 minutes after the explosions. In the meantime, as reported by Spanish-language newspapers, other passengers worked to get people out of the wrecked rail cars, tended their wounds, and urged calm in the chaos. Such incidents have prompted a growing number of disaster experts to call for a new disaster paradigm, one based on a grass-roots, public-first approach.

While police, fire, and rescue workers need equipment and training, this groupof experts contends that it would be equally, if not more, important to organize local communities, schools, and businesses. They believe the public should be trained in what to do in an emergency response but, more important, that emergency managers base those plans on what people say they will need, and how they will react in the case of, say, a dirty bomb, or a smallpox attack.