In Disasters People Stay Calm, Help Others

Posted by Lloyd on March 02, 2012
First Aid

When disaster strikes, people usually react in a calm and reasoned way, Johns Hopkins University researchers report. This means, they say, that untrained men and women can play a vital role in responding to any disaster, including a bioterrorist attack.

“Our medical and public health response systems need to incorporate or treat the public as a capable ally in the event of a bioterrorist attack, particularly one involving a mass casualty scenario,” said medical anthropologist Dr. Monica Schoch-Spana. “When we look at communities in severe crisis, we find that people can adapt to the situation and they can act resourcefully and effectively, and carry out tremendous acts of mutual aid.”

Schoch-Spana and co-author Dr. Thomas A. Glass of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, analyzed media coverage of the public response to both the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing anthrax scare, and sent rapid response research teams to New York City to observe volunteer activity around the World Trade Center in the weeks following the attacks on the US.

The researchers also reviewed information on the public response to previous US disasters, including the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 that sickened 25% of the US population and killed 500,000; the 1979 partial melt-down of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; and the 1999 outbreak of West Nile virus in New York.

In the current issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, Schoch-Spana and Glass conclude that public panic is rare and easily preventable in such extreme situations, with laypeople usually staying calm, collected and rationally engaged.

The investigators point out, for example, that most flu victims in the 1918 epidemic were cared for by family and friends at home, despite concern about contagion. This care was critical to supplementing the work of overwhelmed public health officials, they add.

Regarding more recent events, the authors note that the public rapidly, and in great numbers, rushed to help emergency personnel in any way they could, from manning telephone help hotlines to helping police and firemen with search and rescue operations.

Even in light of the media’s blanket coverage of the anthrax scare, the vast majority of men and women reacted with “reasoned calm,” the researchers note.

Schoch-Spana and Glass conclude that although it is difficult to predict actual behavior in the event of a large-scale bioterrorist attack, because such an event has never happened, all indications suggest that the public is capable of meeting the challenge.

They suggest that policymakers provide the public with accurate, trustworthy and timely information that can help individuals play a central, rather than peripheral, role in a time of national crisis.

“It’s volunteers who save many, if not most, of the victims in a disaster,” said Schoch-Spana. “It’s not the professional response community, because their numbers are limited and, let’s face it, they can’t move as quickly as people in the immediate vicinity of a crisis. So we need to question our dominant assumptions as to the effective response role the public could assume during a crisis…. The public is not an extraneous consideration.”

A well-equipped first-aid kit can help out you respond quickly and effectively to injuries, emergencies. Everyone should include an individual first aid kits handy in the car, at home and in the workplace.

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