In Times of Disaster, Neighbors Need to Help Neighbors

When a storm wreaks havoc on a community, or an earthquake destroys a city, it takes a village to resolve the emergency, says a Firehouse Expo instructor.


BALTIMORE – In times of man-made or natural disasters, the resiliency of people and human kindness shine. Disasters can overwhelm responders and it’s surprising how much help civilians can provide in those situations.
Firehouse Expo class presenter Robert S. Katz, an adviser for the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and paramedic, taught a class on “MCI and Emergency Management: It Takes a Village.”

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Using some recent natural disasters to prove his point, Katz mentioned the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Sandy and the tsunami in Japan as instances where people helping people – ordinary citizens – made a difference.
“Haiti was a disaster before disaster hit,” Katz said.
The people of Haiti, unlike the United States, do not expect the federal government to come in and help them with anything, never mind disaster relief, Katz said, noting that’s why the model of neighbors helping neighbors worked well in that country.
“People jumped right in and went to work trying to save survivors,” he said.
Because Haiti is relatively close to the United States, and is easier to get to then many other areas of the world, just because of its location, Katz said the response to help Haiti was enormous. Katz said he was pleased to be able to help organize Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams to deploy in Haiti and help were they could.
Those people who went needed lots of gear for an extended period of time, Katz said. And, because it takes a village to handle a mass casualty incident, Katz said he contacted a local regional summer camp to see if they could buy the gear in storage because it was February when the earthquake hit.
“They were happy to contribute and they didn’t want a dime for it,” he said. “And none of it came back.”
It was relationships that got teams deployed to Haiti quickly. Katz said.
In 2011 when the earthquake hit off Japan and sent a tsunami into the country, once again it was neighbors helping neighbors, Katz said.
“There was no looting and everyone was very patient,” Katz said, noting that American’s expect immediate results from responders, EMS providers and police to take care of their issues.
“We have a very different culture here,” Katz said, seguing in into domestic disasters, like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. “Here, it’s ‘the government will take care of me and where’s my check.’”
That doesn’t mean neighbors didn’t help their neighbors in the domestic hurricanes, just that it wasn’t as prevalent or organized, Katz said, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be more codified.
Katz said in this day of technology, cell phones and internet can be great ways of getting resources to people who need them.
Social media sites are becoming important methods of communications in times of disasters, Katz said, adding that fire department and emergency response agencies can, and should, include people with shortwave radio experience and technology experience when preparing and planning for MCIs.
That way, those with needed resources like water, shelter and trucks can help get those in need connected with those who have, Katz said.
Organizations like the Kiwanis, Lions, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and Civilian Emergency Response Teams (C.E.R.T.) should be contacted and included in training to have a formalized way of handling the situations as they arise.
Lawyers, accountants and other professionals may not be able to go out and respond to emergencies, but they might be able to lend a hand with logistical needs.
“Maybe there’s a transportation manager in your district that might like to help out,” Katz said, noting that an individual with those kinds of skills can easily and efficiently develop an on-the-fly schedule of ambulances and how they should be transported to different hospitals and when.
When those tasks are parceled out, it frees responders to go out and respond to other emergencies as they happen.
The key is, however, to train with these identified individuals and groups before any MCI hits.
“You can’t just hand someone a clip board and have them understand anything about what you’re trying to do,” Katz said.
Katz also recommended a formalized method of encouraging neighbors to help neighbors, Katz said.
When someone stubs their big toe during a blizzard, or an MCI and calls an ambulance to take them to the hospital, it takes away resources for others with potential much greater needs.
“There’s got to be a way to have a neighbor go and check on that individual and then tell us how the patient is doing,” Katz said, adding that way the resources are allocated efficiently and effectively.
Working with retail stores can open up resources to provide necessary relief items where they’re needed most, but echoing a theme, Katz said relationship have to be established before the needs arise.
The same is true for providing shelter, Katz said. Municipal city and school buses can, at once, provide shelter and transportation for walking wounded. Charter and coach bus companies are often willing to help too, but they need to know what to do before an MCI event happens, Katz said.
Civilians and neighbors can also be organized into networks to help feed those displaced by a storm, like Sandy and Katrina, or to check on neighbors, Katz said.
“The key is to develop those networks now,” Katz said. “Kids can learn how to vie back our communities and how we can get back to neighbors helping neighbors. …We need to bring everyone into the fold so we can go out and do our jobs.”