The rise of natural disasters and violent incidents in today’s communities is putting everyday citizens in the position of having to serve as first responders to save lives. Some communities are taking the lead in preparing their citizens for this unfortunate and unexpected role by teaching them to apply narcan in cases of opioid overdose, helping evacuate others with limited mobility, or applying a tourniquet to a gunshot victim.
The Impact of the Opioid Crisis
The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that has unfortunately impacted both big cities and small towns across the nation. The CDC reports that on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
Opioid overdose emergencies happen most often accidentally and at home. Paramedics across the country carry naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. Along with police officers and other first responders, more and more everyday citizens are getting access and education to use naloxone in an emergency to save the lives of friends and family.
Targeted community distribution programs seek to train and equip individuals who are most likely to encounter or witness an overdose—especially people who use drugs and their relatives. Getting everyday citizens comfortable carrying and administering this medicine has been proven to save lives, especially in rural areas.
Last October, the CDC announced that the rates of drug overdose deaths are rising in rural areas, surpassing rates in urban areas. Residents in rural areas tend to experience longer response time from first responders - nearly 1 of 10 encounters wait almost a half hour for the arrival of EMS personnel. By equipping individuals who are most likely to be at the scene of an overdose, the potential delay between the onset of an opioid overdose and the delivery of life-saving care can be reduced to seconds.
Everyday citizens volunteering to help isn't a recent phenomenon - during the battle of Dunkirk in WWII, personal vessels like fishing boats and pleasure cruisers volunteered to be guided by naval crafts to assist with evacuation and lift troops from the water. Inspired by the spirit of Dunkirk, the Cajun Navy first came together in the aftermath Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of people in hundreds of boats gathered in Lafayette, Louisiana, to rescue thousands trapped by floodwaters.
“The reality of the Cajun Navy is everybody out here with a boat that isn’t devastated gets out and helps others,” Clyde Cain, who runs the Facebook page Louisiana Cajun Navy, told USA TODAY.
Citizens arrived in everything from airboats, kayaks, and hunting boats with one common goal: to help people. It's estimated that their efforts saved 10,000 people from flooded homes and rooftops, and they haven't slowed down. This homegrown volunteer rescue squad has continued to provide much needed relief in Southeastern hurricane affected areas. When Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Carolinas last fall, the volunteer group reunited to assist in search and rescue efforts. They came to the aid of 160 trapped citizens, including an elderly man and others with limited mobility.
Giving Gunshot Victims a Fighting Chance
Stop the Bleed, which partners with the American College of Surgeons, identifies uncontrolled bleeding as “the number one cause of preventable death from trauma.” The first few moments after a gunshot are critical. Victims have a better chance of survival if bystanders understand how to slow bleeding and keep the victim breathing until first responders arrive. Programs have been popping up across the nation to help give ordinary citizens the ability to control bleeding at the scene of an event and make a life or death difference.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, there were 1403 shooting victims in 2018. Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia is advocating for bystander first aid with a program called "Fighting Chance". The hospital has teamed up with the North Philadelphia community to help high violence neighborhoods react to shooting scenarios. Fighting Chance educates citizens of all ages by teaching simple techniques that can save the life of gunshot victims. A severely injured person can bleed to death in less than 10 minutes, but it can take much longer for police to arrive and calm the situation. The trainers teach the class how to move a victim away from danger and slow down the bleeding. A shooting scene is chaotic and frightening, but enabling bystanders with the basics puts power in people’s hands to address the issue and make a difference.
The tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL has sparked an initiative to educate students with skills that could potentially save the lives of their classmates. This past summer, Time reported that the Department of Homeland Security is creating a "School-Age Trauma Training Program" that will provide high schools students with the knowledge necessary to stabilize the injured and control severe bleeding until first responders arrive on the scene. This program could add bleeding-control training to active-shooter drills in American schools. Many high schools offer CPR certification, so this type of training may become the new normal, although it is still controversial.
Why Communication is Imperative
A common theme among all of these community programs is the presence or involvement of community emergency managers. In almost all after action reports (AAR) following an incident, communication is highlighted as a major contributor to the success or sometimes failure of effective emergency response. Emergency managers often look at two separate but equally critical functions: internal and external communications.
External communications are messages sent out to members of the community that will be affected by an incident. During severe weather, such as a hurricane making landfall, targeted external communications can be sent to neighborhoods with mandatory evacuation orders or areas that can expect to lose power. Details can be provided about safe points such as a high school gymnasium or a convention center that will be repurposed to house those who are driven from their dwellings with no place else to go. A separate message can be sent to citizens who've identified that they might need help.
For example, in communities that use Smart911 that's connected to their vulnerable needs registry, citizens can identify whether they have mobility limitations and will need evacuation assistance. This gives emergency managers access to critical information through an online portal and it's also quite easy and free for citizens sign up either online or through a mobile app.
Internal communications serve an equally important purpose by providing stakeholders across multiple agencies and jurisdictions the ability to communicate through a single channel to relay updates and information including asking for additional resources to be allocated to a specific area, identifying critical system failures such as large scale power outages, and providing real-time updates throughout an emergency. In addition to citizens identifying within their Smart911 profile whether they'll require additional assistance during a natural disaster, citizens looking to volunteer their services can also identify whether they have special emergency response training.