Citizen-Participation Drills: Beyond Duck and Cover

Professional emergency response is the mainstay of community safety, but major and minor events have shown that by itself this is not enough; individuals and households also must be prepared to help themselves. Professional responders train and exercise to hone and evaluate their skills, but most “everyday citizens,” as they are called, rarely do. Fire prevention programs have been advocating “home fire drills” for years – and evidence shows that, to the extent that households participate, these can be lifesaving. However, there are many other household needs that are seldom if ever addressed.

The first tasks that should be addressed in any public-education program related to community safety are prevention and preparation. The reason is, or should be, obvious: The injury that never occurs because risky behavior is prevented requires no response and causes no harm. There are many resources on the internet that provide good advice about risk assessment and prevention; handouts emphasizing the main message and providing additional details should be available at fire-prevention programs and similar public-education events.An Unrealistic Sense of Self-SufficiencyUnderstanding how to access professional emergency response – and, more importantly, when an event requires the intervention of professional responders – must be goal number one of such programs. In short, it is of critical importance that the program instill a realistic sense of what cannot be handled by the The best course of action usually is getting the family together and moving away from the danger zone just as quickly as possible individual citizen and to strongly emphasize that it is better to call for help and not need it than it is not to call for help and then recognize, when it is already too late, that outside help really was needed.Fires often are allowed to grow out of control while the homeowner or office staff or other well-meaning persons fumble with a fire extinguisher in the hopes of “handling it themselves.” 

This is why the main thrust of a realistic fire-prevention program has to be breaking down the pride that keeps the “self-sufficient” individual citizen from calling for help. More often than not when fires break out the first and most appropriate step to be taken is to call for help to limit the loss of life and property.It is equally important that the individual citizen – homeowners and businessmen specifically included – understand that it is acceptable to evacuate the premises when fire and/or other dangers threaten. Professional responders possess the skills, training, and equipment needed to safely handle the emergency; the best course of action, therefore, usually is getting the family, or staff, together, making sure all are present or accounted for, and moving away from the danger zone just as quickly as possible. 

Maximizing the MessageAnother important fact to keep in mind is that professional responders usually have with them, or readily accessible, the equipment needed to evaluate a threat to ensure it has been completely removed or eliminated. A good example here is the heat-sensing cameras that fire departments carry to find smoldering fires that are otherwise undetectable.Today, fortunately, citizen emergency drills can be matched to and are welcome at many public events and venues. An open house at the local fire, police, or EMS station is aneal venue for such events; so is a booth at a fair or even a sidewalk sale. 

Small skill stations can be set up, for example, where a topic can be broken down into several phases – prevention, to begin with; then, when to call for help; and an appropriate and helpful hands-on skill.The goal of all such events should be to keep the attention of the public and impart the message needed. 

By matching a prevention-and-preparedness message with a take-away information sheet and the opportunity to participate in a hands-on skill session, the program can maximize the message while maintaining the interest of the citizen. The final point to remember in this context is that such drills have to present relatively simple and straightforward information in a way that makes sense, unlike the “duck and cover” drills of the civil-defense era in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which were simple enough, but usually made no sense to those participating in them.__________________________Links for additional informationwww.ready.gov prevention

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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