By Tracey Barron
People converging on a scene after a disaster have the distinct tendency of increasing congestion at the scene and hampering rescue efforts. The informal actions should never be confused with dispatcher-guided Pre-Arrival or Post-Dispatch Instructions.
Dispatch instruction is coordinated behavior. I’m referring to the informal and spontaneous movement of people—known as “convergence behavior”—that tends to add to the congestion at an emergency incident making “organization and control of the rescue and relief efforts more difficult.”1
The behavior includes the altruistic volunteer equipped with a shovel to dig out victims after a landfall or the uninvited conveyance of food and drink for on-scene emergency responders. Spontaneous volunteers, although well intentioned, can hinder response “by creating health, safety, and security issues, distracting responders from their duties, and interfering with response operations.”2
The same applies to medical personnel arriving on scene to render voluntary assistance. Their actions—medical freelancing—although, again, are well intentioned, can conflict with established emergency medical service (EMS) protocols and can, consequently, represent “purposeful disregard for dispatch and response protocols at times when adherence to them is most critically required.”3
Think of the adage that too many cooks spoil the broth: When there are too many people trying to do the same work at the same time they, in the process, stir discord into a situation. The result will be spoiled.
The phenomenon of convergence behavior is studied in a recent issue of the Academy’s Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response (AEDR). The authors present a review of the behavior in Kenya during six major emergency incidents occurring over a 15-year period (1998–2013) along with the behavior’s associated risks.
Droughts, floods, fires, terrorism, collapsed buildings, and disease dominate Kenya’s major incident profile, and the six incidents described in the article include a suicide bombing (Aug. 7, 1998, killing 212 people), petrol tanker accident (Jan. 31, 2009, killing 72 people), landslide (April 4, 2012, killing 8 people), explosion (May 28, 2012, killing 1), mass shooting (Sept. 21, 2013, killing 72), and train collision (October 2013, killing 11).
In each incident, onlookers and bystanders took action, believing they were doing what was necessary to reduce personal danger and provide help during a potentially life-threatening situation; in consequence, crowd surge (e.g., trampling, blocking arrival of emergency vehicles) increased the number injured and the number of people who died.
The actions of the altruistic and curious turned sometimes relatively minor incidents into major incidents, particularly considering Kenya’s lack of specific training of emergency services personnel to respond to major incidents, poor coordination of major incident management activities, and a lack of standard operational procedures and emergency operation plans.4
It should be noted that convergence behavior is not unique to Kenyans, and solutions to prevent the informal and potentially disastrous gathering of family and onlookers at an emergency can be universally applied.
This is a basic assumption of human nature, requiring the development of pre-disaster protocol, with components to include public education citing the risks and dangers of convergence and recommended public actions and, at the time of the incident, both the dissemination of accurate information and the organization of a staging area for observers.5
Public awareness and a regulated, streamlined approach can benefit EMS response and, also, the people who invariably converge on the scene, as long as the approach sensibly integrates the actions people are likely to take.
1Wako D, Montgomery J, Martel, L, Neatherlin J. “Normal Convergence at Major Emergency Incidents in Kenya.” Annals of Emergency Dispatch and Response. 2014; 2:5-8.
2Fernandez L, Barbera J, VanDorp J. “Strategies for Managing Volunteers during Incident Response: A Systems Approach.” Homeland Security Affairs. 2006. http://www.hsaj.org/?fullarticle=2.3.9 (accessed Dec. 12, 2014).
3Cone D, Weir S, Bogucki S. “Convergent Volunteerism.” Ann Emerg Med. 2003. www.smrrc.org/PDF%20files/Convergent%20Volunteerism.pdf (accessed Nov. 12, 2014).
4Wachira B, Smith W. “Major Incidents in Kenya: the Case for Emergency Services Development and Training.” Prehospital and Disaster Med. 2013. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid… (accessed Dec. 12, 2014).
5See note 3.