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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

Civilian rescuer: hero or threat

Community education is the best way to teach civilians how not to add to the emergency when trying to perform a rescue

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: Chief Adam K. Thiel looks at how civilian-performed rescues can go either very well or very bad and advises how to best prepare residents for Good Samaritan situations. 

We hear a lot these days about the whole-community approach to emergency prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

For good reasons, we're spending time trying to educate our residents about our capabilities, limitations and how they can help themselves —and their neighbors — after a disaster or emergency incident. We know that governments, including fire departments, cannot always provide all the necessary services after a catastrophic event.

As these stories demonstrate, however, there is a potential downside to having untrained civilians — sometimes called Good Samaritans — attempt to mitigate emergencies before the arrival of trained responders.

We know, of course, that emergency scenes can be dangerous even for skilled professionals (career and volunteer) with proper PPE and equipment. To the average person, though, our job can look "easy" sometimes, especially when the hazards are invisible or difficult to identify.

So how do we help people find a balance between "neighbor helping neighbor" and keeping themselves safe?

The answer, as with so many things, is public education. Beyond the opportunities we have to reach people through delivering regular fire and life safety curricula, we can also develop CERT programs and other training packages that give folks the tools to "do no harm" to themselves and others.

Stay safe!

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
David Sonnen David Sonnen Monday, August 27, 2012 6:24:53 PM One up side of public involvement, particularly public education, is that an informed public is more likely to support the work we do. We don't want to trade that involvement off too casually.
Bo Wriston Bo Wriston Tuesday, August 28, 2012 7:51:28 AM Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs were born of the need to educate "civilians" and turn potential liabilities instead into community assets. Began by the Los Angeles Fire Department in the late 1980's, and now guided nationally through FEMA and Citizen Corps, CERT is perfectly aligned to teach civilians basic disaster preparedness and give them the skill sets to help professional first responders both efficiently and safely. I would recommend that all Fire Departments, Police Departments, and Emergency Services agencies embrace and explore the benefits that a locally based, fully trained and certified auxiliary of volunteers can bring to their organizations! As a Office of Emergency Services (OES) Director, EMT, Firefighter, and local CERT team leader, I can attest to the value each and every CERT team member brings to the community!
Alan F Vacks Alan F Vacks Friday, August 31, 2012 6:28:40 PM As a retired Pittsburgh Firefighter with over 40 yrs experience I have come to know the Ft Myers Beach, Fl. CERT Team very well as I have been the Team Leader for two years now. The training that we give in First Aid, Pet First Aid, CPR/AED, and other areas will be invaluable before, during and after a hurricane if the local Emergency services become or are overwhelmed. As the Fire Dept members are invaluable in helping train the civilian personel and without whose support there wouldn't be a CERT team, they get to interact with the very "professionals" they may be working with. This CERT team as well as many others are fully prepared to give trained assistance in an emergency of any kind.
Torch Onepercenter Torch Onepercenter Tuesday, September 04, 2012 2:18:17 AM I am a disabled firefighter/EMT, and I have worked in emergency situations with civilians in the past, (being the only emergency personnel on scene at the time) and they have been VERY helpful. I think the CERT program is a terrific program, and it seems to almost be more "popular" than volunteer fire departments. I know departments in my area are having recruitment and retention problems but CERT programs are doing well. And considering some things I have seen and heard coming from volunteer firefighters I don't see much of a difference between "professionals" and civilians.
Torch Onepercenter Torch Onepercenter Tuesday, September 04, 2012 2:54:38 AM I just read the article of the father son "rescue team" who rescued 120 people during Issac. As far as I know neither are "professional rescuers" and if (in my opinion) they did not respond when they did who knows how many people would have been rescued versus bodies recovered. I think they are a GREAT example of how civilians can be a HUGE help.
Jeff Allen Jeff Allen Tuesday, September 04, 2012 4:49:15 AM There are several sides to this story. In one case you may have a CERT team that is county based but not 'in tune' with local fire departments; that could be a disaster waiting to happen. In another case you could have a retired or out of jurisdiction first responder trying sincerely to help but only getting in the way; we had one off duty fireman who should have been arrested for delaying patient care he was so badly in the way but he was given professional courtesy and gently 'removed' from a scene. It's okay to educate our public but without the proper training and LOTS of ongoing communication the recipe is not going to have a good result every time. Be safe.

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