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May 13
Bystanders who didn’t stand by

How ordinary people became first responders and what we can learn from them

Authors: Gregg Lord and Arnold Bogis, ASPR’s Emergency Care Coordination Center

The bombing of the Boston Marathon was a tragedy by any measure. But even as bombs continued to go off, there were brave individuals who ran towards the danger, not away from it, to help those in need. These people showed the vital role the community plays during any disaster and their bravery should inspire 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 actually on the scene before the tragedy struck. Massachusetts officials consider Patriot’s Day a “planned disaster” and they prepare for terrorist attacks and other types of disasters while managing the race itself. The planning goes on all year and requires the deployment of an impressive number of medical personnel. Considering the types of injuries caused by the blasts, these people undoubtedly saved lives.

Yet even with all of these pre-positioned medical resources, the public still played a critical role in the response. The amazing stories about these heroes are just starting to be told. 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 or donate blood. Volunteers and spectators also provided aid and comfort when the people around them needed it most.

How can people get ready for a disaster like this? Learning first aid and CPR and understanding risk awareness can definitely help prepare you to help others – friends, family members, and even strangers. But you don’t need to have formal training to save someone’s life or provide them with the care that 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 communities and individuals who know what they can do to protect themselves and are willing and able to do it. This effort requires shifting the culture surrounding the essential role of community first aid during an emergency. Health, safety, and security cannot only be “left to the professionals,” but instead should be recognized as everybody’s responsibility.

Success in preparing for and responding to any large event will rest in the ability to harness the immense potential of the community, as was 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.


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