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September 09
Time is Not Your Friend in an Emergency – But Bystanders Could Be

Author: Gregg Lord, MS, NRP, Director, Emergency Care Coordination Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Most emergency managers and health responders believe that time is not their friend. When someone is hurt, these professionals know that the injured person needs help now. Right now. Not in the 5 minutes or 10 minutes or 15 minutes that it will take you to get to that person. This is particularly true in an emergency, when there may be too many injured people and too few responders or the injuries, which often include severe bleeding or cardiac arrest, are likely to cause death in the first 5-8 minutes.

So, what if there was some way that planners and responders could shorten the time to life saving intervention in the victim’s favor? What if there was some way to start getting people the help that they urgently need more quickly? Better yet, what if the solution was low cost and helped your community become more resilient in the face of disasters? Would you be interested in supporting it?

By supporting bystanders who want to help in an emergency, responders can support faster response times and stronger communities. As the name implies, bystanders are right there – standing by. And sometimes, if we are very lucky, they don’t stand by – they jump in to help. They call 911, apply pressure to the wound, perform CPR or do one of countless other actions that can either save the person’s life or help give the responders a few more minutes to get to the injured person.

And these bystanders aren’t just trying to help responders and injured people during emergencies – they successfully help people who urgently need it. Mounting evidence – from emergencies like the Boston Marathon Bombing as well as more local events like people stuck in car fires or drowning in flooded areas – suggests that bystander response saves lives. Although some professional responders are concerned that bystanders actually could hinder the professional response, there’s no scientific evidence to support this idea. During an emergency response, seriously injured people need all the extra minutes they can get, EMS providers, although quick can and usually do take several minutes. Incorporating bystanders into response plans could be a key part of the answer.

Of course, some people don’t feel comfortable helping out. When asked, bystanders will express concern over fears that they could harm the victim, may not know what to do or how to help, and fears that they would be held liable or may be injured.

At the core, education of the average citizen will alleviate many of the impediments to bystanders acting– and they are issues that many emergency planners, response organizations and hospitals can help fix. By supporting first aid and CPR education for members of your community, you can give them the skills that they need to help someone in an emergency – when seconds count. You’re also letting your community know that they can and should be part of an effective emergency response and that you want them to help protect their loved ones and their communities.

Supporting first aid and CPR training in your community is an investment – it will take time and resources that are often scarce. But the benefits may translate into a more prepared, more resilient community and that is definitely worth the investment.

Do you have other thoughts on ways that responders can help communities become an effective part of the disaster response? If so, let us know in a comment to this blog post.

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