Bystanders who didn’t stand by
National EMS Week, May 19-25
How ordinary people became first responders and what we can learn from them
As we honor National Emergency Medical Services Week, the Boston Marathon bombing is still fresh on our minds. It was a tragedy by any measure. Yet as bombs went off, the EMS Week theme, “One Mission, One Team” rang true. There were brave individuals who ran toward the danger to help those in need.
Even with pre-positioned medical providers, bystanders played a critical role in the response, proving themselves to be part of the team. These people showed the vital role the community plays during any disaster, and their bravery inspires everyone to recognize the critical role that the community plays in planning for, responding to, and recovering from a tragedy.
Take a moment to consider how many professional doctors, nurses, paramedics and EMTs were on the scene before the tragedy struck. Because of the large number of participants and spectators, Massachusetts officials consider the Boston Marathon, part of the annual Patriot’s Day celebration, to be a “planned mass casualty event.” The planning goes on all year and requires deployment of an impressive number of medical personnel. Considering the types of injuries caused by the blasts, these people undoubtedly reduced injury and saved lives.
Yet there are also amazing stories about bystanders as heroes. Volunteers and spectators provided aid and comfort to the people around them. They became an impromptu part of the EMS system. A man who lost one son in Iraq and another to suicide helped stop the bleeding of a man whose leg was blown off. Runners, who only moments earlier finished the race, rushed to apply makeshift tourniquets to the injured, carried people toward first aid tents, or comforted the people around them.
How can bystanders get ready for a disaster like this? Learning first aid, CPR and risk awareness definitely can help prepare you to help others – friends, family members, and strangers. But you don’t always need formal training to save someone’s life or provide them with the care they desperately need at that moment. Sometimes you just need to be willing to help carry someone who is hurt to safety, provide comfort to someone who is frightened, or help someone find the medical care they need.
Prepared individuals are aware of potential risks, understand where they can turn for help, know what their personal responsibilities are, and are willing to help their neighbors and community members.
At the core of a resilient nation are individuals who know what they can do to protect themselves and are willing and able to do it. Health, safety, and security cannot be left to the professionals but should be recognized as everybody’s responsibility. We must shift our national culture to recognize the essential role of community first aid during an emergency. Community planners across the country must incorporate the bystander-as-responder into emergency management plans.
Success in preparing for and responding to any large event rests in the ability to harness the immense potential of the community. We saw this exhibited by those Boston heroes, formal first responders, and those who simply took action when faced with unimaginable tragedy and helped their fellow citizens in the moment of greatest need.
Simply put: bystanders didn’t stand by. They saved lives. We should learn from their bravery and plan on ways that we, as part of our community and our nation, can be better prepared to help out in the next disaster, so we truly have one mission, one team.
— Gregg Lord
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.
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