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First Responders Will Show Up When Disaster Strikes, But Need Some Help Along the Way

Emergency and city planners who worry that first responders will be reluctant to report for duty in the event of a major disaster can breathe easy: According to a University of Delaware researcher, first responders will do just that – respond. But organizations can take some steps to ensure they are best protecting and preparing their responders along the way.

Joe Trainor, an assistant professor of sociology and a member of the University of Delaware’s (UD) Disaster Research Center faculty, analyzed whether emergency responders would be willing to report for duty in the case of a catastrophe. He conducted the work as part of a regional catastrophic preparedness program that involved the Washington, D.C., metro area and surrounding states of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, where emergency planners worried that first responders would abandon their work in the event of a disaster.

After reviewing 180 papers, reports and analyses on disasters, Trainor determined role abandonment is unlikely if first response organizations were proactive in protecting their employees.

“Fire companies and police stations and hospitals should stop being concerned about whether individuals will report or not and start being concerned about what their organizations can do to help individuals report to duty,” Trainor said.

According to Trainor, organizations should consider the following questions:

  • Are we asking people to do reasonable things?
  • Are we doing everything that we can do to facilitate their saying ‘yes’ when they are called on to respond?
  • How can we ease first responders’ conflict between dedication to their jobs and devotion to their families?

“It might just be simple education,” he explained. “Let the employees understand what the nature of these threats are.”

Trainor suggests first responders’ employers reach out to families, get them thinking about preparedness and organize support and resources for spouses. For example, fire companies could educate their members on the details and dangers of bioterrorism and how responders can protect themselves. They also should provide PPE like specialized suits and train the responders in how to use them.

By reducing first responders’ personal worries, Trainor concluded, these workers can better assist a community in the event of an emergency.

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