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Self-dispatching in Emergencies and Disasters

By: Dr. Luiz Hargreaves
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As an emergency professional, we are prepared to deal with unexpected situations, including disasters. Every time we hear about potential or real crisis, we automatically review the procedures in our minds and the desire to help is enormous. On many occasions, I would like to go directly to a scene to assist the victims and my peers. I believe that this feeling is not different among everyone involved in this field.

There are a lot of situations in which we are prepared to make a difference, including natural and man-made disasters, emergencies, complexes police and security operations. Exactly, for this reason, the self-dispatching is a pitfall.

It is essential that professionals act as a team in any type of crisis.

Self- dispatching has been criticizing for many years for different reasons. All operations require an all-hazardous plan and an immediate action plan.

Usually, self-dispatching occurs in two circumstances. The first one is when a professional, who is a member of a Public Safety/Health Agency, is on duty. The information about a critical situation is received by radio or phone, and he decides to go, without a defined mission and without following the protocols.

In this case, the information is probably reliable because it is coming from an official source but when professionals decide to go by themselves, some problems can arise. The immediate consequence is that they are leaving the area under their supervision, without previous notice. It means that people living in that area will become more vulnerable. We must remember that, despite the fact that a critical situation must be prioritized, the city is still working, and problems still come from different causes. Crimes will not disappear, and medical emergencies will not vanish because an emergency is happening in the city. The decision to deploy the emergency teams to the scene must be taken by who is in charge of the emergency operations. Only people directly involved in the coordination and supervision of the situation have the required knowledge and capacity (legal and operational) to determine what will be the best resources to be employed in a particular case. Another question is that a lot of resources on the same site cause traffic problems. Some professionals not only dispatch themselves, but they also do not want to go to the staging area as required by the Incident Command System, causing a problem of coordination and potential chaos.

No one should work in emergencies without a clear mission and a plan. Self-missions do not exist. Acting with no attention to the protocols or a plan is just improvisation, and it can lead to an increase in the risk of the operation, which means that lives can be jeopardized. We can never forget that the life of the rescuer, which means our lives, must be prioritized. We cannot save other people if we are not safe.

Self-dispatching also means that protocols are not being followed. This issue is especially true when professionals are going to work in an area with different protocols and resources.

History has a lot of cases in which people perished because they were trying to save lives, but they did not have a mission, they were not following guidance, and they have self-dispatched.

Another possibility is that off-duty professionals, as well as those that are not members of a public or private emergency organization, that dispatch themselves because friends or media advice them that an emergency was going on. The first problem here is that the information cannot be reliable. Whether they arrive on scene they can enter directly into a Hot Zone, if they arrive before the official response. Many critical situations involve risks for first responders, which include chemical, biological, radiological and explosive devices. Many terrorist attacks were reported as having secondary explosive artifacts addressed to the first responders. Natural and man-made disasters produce debris that are important causes of injury and death.

Another problem is that, as discussed above, no one should act in an emergency situation without a mission clearly defined or an established plan. Of course, we're not talking about the events in which the survivors of an emergency are trying to save themselves, and they need to use the available resources in a precarious situation, to escape from the threat. Likewise, when a police officer or a firefighter is a witness of a tragedy, and all efforts are taken to save the victims and deal with the hazard is not self-dispatching. However, even in this situation, it is important to seize the scene and work according to the previous training and protocols they have received, beyond the necessity to inform the emergency services what is going on.

Volunteers are crucial in various emergency incidents. However, they must be connected to an Agency or Organizational. They must be trained and follow protocols. They must be summoned, deployed or dispatched to the scene. Showing up to an incident or disaster scene by themselves, will put the volunteers at risk and instead of being understood as a sum of efforts, actually they can complicate the coordination process and additional problems can occur. Many volunteers have been injured in incidents because they did not follow these primary rules.

Thus, it is understandable and expected this feeling of urgent necessity to act to save people by who is involved in emergency and crisis management. However, the best outcomes are obtained in hostile environments when plans are taken in place, protocols are followed, and missions are accomplished. The emergency agencies must have channels to activate additional personnel if necessary, and volunteers and employees should follow guidelines for unexpected events in which they can be allowed to work in a professional and safe manner. Sometimes, the best response to an incident is to be on standby for your agency. They will know when, why and how to activate you.

Luiz Hargreaves, AAS, MD, MS, MA is a qualified Expert in Crisis Management and Disaster Preparedness. He has been working in these fields for more than 30 years, with a large experience in major events, counterterrorism, disaster prevention and emergency planning.

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