How People Respond in Emergencies

    May 2009            
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Book Review

By Jay Levinson

The True Golden Hour: How People Respond in Emergencies
by Hayim Granot
Toronto: The Key Publishing House (2009)
ISBN: 978-0-9782526-1-8

Our understanding of response to disasters is flawed, and Hayim Granot, a retired professor at Bar Ilan University, uses the Israeli experience to prove the point and debunk several myths.

Bureaucratic planning for disaster response usually starts with the self-serving notion that only command and control imposed by governmental agencies can rescue a helpless civilian population. Granot convincingly shows that individuals are not necessarily incapable of response.

A common supposition is that when given the assumed breakdown of law and order after a catastrophic earthquake or flood, individuals will seize the opportunity to loot and steal. Nothing could be further from the truth. The author carefully documents cases in which law enforcement geared up to prevent post-disaster looting, only to find that there was none. Yes, there was theft during the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, but it was primarily for food in a situation of supply breakdown. Prosecuting such an act is reminiscent of the intolerant hunting down of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

The same is true of rioting. It simply does not exist in typical disaster situations. If anything, there are numerous foreign cases of looting during a riot, such as the race riots in the United States (which had absolutely nothing to do with classic disasters).

It is convenient for bureaucracies to resort to a command structure in dealing with disasters as they try to "re-establish order." The fallacy is that civilians are not soldiers, and they do not react to orders with the precision of army personnel. Instructions must replace commands, and tolerance must overcome the military model. Perhaps most important is that civilian self-help has to be a part of response planning, even though it encompasses greater leeway than police or military models.

Panic in evacuation is another disaster myth contradicted by experience in Israel and elsewhere. People do not panic and react irrationally, sacrificing others to save their own lives. If there is seeming panic, it is more likely to be the result of poor pre-incident planning, a lack of instructions, and unclear options in evacuation. Again, the author knows of no documented case of panic in the Israeli experience.

Another myth with no foundation is that since the public is prone to irrational and dangerous behavior, information released must be carefully screened. If anything, the opposite is true. Yes, all information released must be screened for accuracy, but not to censor comments. The public has a natural and understandable desire to know. If government offices are incapable of meeting that need, then the people will resort to other sources to fill the information gap. It is a classic rule that the mass media often assign reporters to cover sudden disasters based upon "who is available," rather than subject expertise. The author cites Three Mile Island as an example. There are numerous Israeli examples as well.

There is a cost to the dissemination of inaccurate media information. It is an invitation to rumors, which sometimes can severely complicate the disaster response.

Granot argues quite plausibly that information cannot be controlled. This is a reality that must be taken into consideration in planning. During the first Gulf War the exact location of the thirty-nine Scud hits was not publicized. An informal information network arose as people sat in "sealed rooms" and tried to find out what was going on. Telephone usage soared, as people tried to fill the information gap.

Do disasters cause demoralization of the general population, as they view death and destruction? Granot argues that to the contrary, people are not shocked, helpless, [and] passive victims waiting to be saved…" It is more a time of heroic deeds and self-sacrifice than a mass call for psychological help. One former World War II soldier from London told this reviewer that after seeing pictures of Nazi bombing of his city, he was not depressed. Those views strengthened his will to fight.

Yet, myths persist. Thought patterns are hard to break, and sometimes it is in the interest of responding agencies, whether governmental or volunteer, not to tarnish the image of helpless citizens dependent on their services. Granot carefully states that often chaos is a function of initial organizing of the response. The guiding principle is that, "The last thing usually needed in an emergency is for outside rescuers to displace local leadership." For that reason the Jerusalem Municipality is trying to center initial response to natural disasters on local neighborhood teams, rather than imposing outside control.

If there is a bottom line to this book, it is that people are not at all helpless. The Israeli experience has shown that that have a Golden Hour in which acts of valor have become models to imitate. The individual must be taken into consideration in disaster response planning, rather than being dismissed. Many of the examples are Israeli, but the message is universal.

The book is highly recommended as a first step in rethinking disaster response and the role of the individual.


from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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