The Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City; World Trade Center Towers bombing 1995; Columbine School shooting; Olympic bombing in Atlanta; World Trade Center Towers bombing 9/11; Hurricane Katrina; Virginia Tech shooting; Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy; Oklahoma wildfires; Newtown Sandy Hook shooting; the list can go on and on. And now, today, the Boston Marathon bombing.
In a video of the first explosion, after the initial blast, there was movement; a rush of people moving toward the injured. The first instinct of people is not usually panic, but a desire to help. People who evacuated the World Trade Center Towers told stories of strangers helping strangers get down the stairs, moving in an orderly fashion, as opposed to a mob running over each other in their attempts to escape.
People want to help. When we hear of terrible things happening, we want to assist. But sometimes our attempts to help can not only hinder rescue efforts, but put us in danger. When the Oklahoma City bombing became news, doctors and nurses from cities all over the state got in their cars and drove to the scene, eager to be of assistance in the rescue efforts. One nurse who drove to the site to help was killed when a slab of concrete fell on her unprotected head.
So when disaster strikes, how can we help without endangering ourselves, or complicating rescue efforts?
• If you are on the scene of the event, follow the instructions of the emergency officials. “If they say evacuate, then evacuate,” says Gary Oldham, a public safety consultant in Austin, TX. “If they say go to such and such place for safety, do so.”
• Pass on those instructions to others who may not have heard them.
• “Don’t flock to the scene of an emergency to get a better look,” says Oldham. “Not only can it be dangerous, due to the possibility of secondary, delayed explosives, but it absolutely hampers the efforts of emergency responders.”
• No matter how good your intentions may be, unless you are part of a sanctioned organization, stay away from the scene of the emergency. Public safety officials absolutely will not utilize spontaneous, untrained and unvetted volunteers, and taking the time to deal with those volunteers will further interfere with the professionals getting their work done.
• Do not send items without knowing what is needed and if the community has the resources to manage mass donations of food, clothes and water. For many communities, such donations are known as the second disaster. The resources required to sort, warehouse and distribute such items must be diverted from the other response and recovery efforts. Many unsolicited donations to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina are still in warehouses today, undistributed, unused. A more effective way to help would be to donate money and/or blood to the American Red Cross. Also, respond to requests from authorities for any photos and videos from the incidents. For example, people on the Boston Marathon course who took photos and videos may help by submitting them to the authorities as possible evidence. In Boston, people can offer to house runners who can’t fly out of town, or get back to their hotels. Boston.com has set up a Google Doc for those who need a place to stay.
• If the event is a man-made disaster, such as a bombing or shooting, you can help by offering any information you may have. Information about the Boston Marathon bombing can be communicated to the city’s crime tips hotline at 1-800-494-TIPS.
• Even from another state, you may have skills that could help. “Spreading vetted, sourced, and useful information via social media is one of those things,” says Oldham. “Helping quell rumors via social media by insisting for source data can be a huge help.”
• Refrain from giving credence to unconfirmed rumors, especially those that may blame specific groups of people or individuals before all the facts have been analyzed and confirmed. In the first hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, politicians were publicly blaming the incident on Islamic terrorists. It was quickly discovered to be the work of domestic terrorist, Timothy McVey.
• If you have friends or loved ones at the location of an incident, or if you are on the scene and want to contact people outside to let them know you are all right, cell phones are probably not going to be your best friend, unless you are texting. When cell towers are down, or lines are jammed, it still may be possible to text. Other ways to communicate include social media; Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are all ways to connect with friends and family. Additionally, the Red Cross has Safe and Well Listings where people can register to say they are safe, or where one can search for friends and family who may have registered. Visit www.redcross.org, and click onto “Get Assistance.”
• If near the scene of a bomb or explosive device, disable your cell phones or radios, since they can accidentally detonate any secondary devices or explosives through wireless frequencies.
• In preparation for disasters, join your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). CERTs are ordinary people trained to become their own first responders in those wide-spread disasters where all first responders are spread thin and may not get to your neighborhood for several days. CERTs learn light search and rescue techniques; how to remove debris from the injured, how to transport and triage injured, as well as how to check for and treat internal and external injuries. To get information about CERT, and to join your local CERT team, visit http://www.fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams/about-community-e….
Everyone wants to help in a crisis. No one wants to make it worse. For most of us, the greatest help we can give is to stay home and wait. As information continues to become available in the aftermath, eventually solid opportunities will arise for those of us who want to help in truly meaningful ways.