Lessons From First Responders: Sometimes You Shouldn’t Be a Hero.

The state of the universe.
May 27 2013 8:30 AM

Don’t Be a Dead Hero

In some disasters, more rescuers die than original victims.

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The U.S. military evaluates dangerous situations slightly differently than do civilian organizations, according to Tom Kolditz, a retired brigadier general who now teaches at the Yale School of Management. The military places a high premium on never leaving a fallen comrade. “We will put men at a considerable amount of risk to recover a body, which some people might find out of balance,” Kolditz says. When combat casualties occur, the military focuses on gathering as much intelligence as possible and on situational awareness. “When someone’s wounded, you don’t just run out there until you neutralize the threat that caused the casualty.”

Commanders set conditions in advance of any mission, making determinations about what is most likely and what is most dangerous. However, “You’ll never have perfect intelligence,” Kolditz says. “There comes a point when a senior leader makes a decision. It’s one of the reasons we respect and admire first responders so much. They don’t always have perfect information, but they respond and put their lives at risk.”

When the U.S. Coast Guard gets a mayday call, command centers gather information about the incident and decide what equipment (search helicopters, rescue boats, etc.) is required. But the risk assessment and decision to launch a mission resides at the local unit level, says Commander Joe Buzzella. “The weather is probably the biggest driver. If it’s a high-risk, high-gain situation, those get real challenging.”

Buzzella emphasized that the Coast Guard fosters a culture of openness. Crews talk openly about mistakes made and lessons learned.

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Electrical workers represent another enormous and largely unrecognized group of first responders. After Superstorm Sandy, more than 15,000 linemen put themselves at risk to restore power from one end of the storm to the other. Thankfully, in that situation, the risks were well understood, and there were few electrical accidents.

“Electricity has killed an awful lot of workers over the years,” said Jim Tomaseski, director of safety and health at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The most common fatalities involve equipment, including repair trucks, that comes into contact with power lines. Electricity can kill crew members who try to help workers in the truck and make contact with it. “Something happens and you want to react, that’s human nature,” Tomaseski says. “But many times the rescuer becomes the victim.”

Cases in which someone is electrocuted at home and another person attempting a rescue is also electrocuted are relatively rare, though. “Most people are scared to death of electricity,” Tomaseski said.

Last month, President Obama traveled to Texas to mourn the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West. Of the 14 people killed in that tragedy, 12 were first responders who selflessly rushed to the site when the plant caught fire. “No words adequately describe the courage that was displayed on that deadly night,” the president said.

Investigators are still determining the exact cause of the fire and explosion in Texas, knowledge that may prevent similar tragedies. Experts are also evaluating policies for responding to situations with similar risks in the future.

Across these very different types of first responders, the similarities in strategy are striking. First responders have extensive and recurring training, proper protective equipment, and coordinated teams with clear chains of command. They gather as much information as possible, focus on maintaining awareness of the situation, have procedures and a culture that allow them to study and learn from past incidents, and they mitigate risks as much as possible before attempting to rescue or assist victims.

Even with all of these safety strategies, trained responders still face substantial risks. Those risks are greatly increased for untrained rescuers. This is exactly the reason safety experts agree: If you witness a tragedy, contact experienced first responders as soon as possible, and keep other people away from the hazard. Do not act instinctively or impulsively. That is to say, if you do try to help or attempt a rescue, first evaluate the risks and understand your limitations—especially in situations involving enclosed spaces, gasses and chemicals, swift water, electricity, and moving traffic. In these situations, rescuers are at extreme risk of becoming additional victims.

Bryce Hall lives in New Haven, Conn. A gallery of his photographs of unexpected images of the U.S. flag following 9/11 was previously published in Slate.

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