Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on November 1, 2017.

Citizen, Help Thyself

A new federal message urges civilians to accept more responsibility in emergencies—but it’s an approach that can come with risks

In July, I had a chance to hear Brock Long, the newly appointed administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), speak at the International Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

After he thanked the chiefs for the work they do and pledged FEMA’s support, he began talking about his vision for the future of emergency management in the United States. Simply put, his message was that civilians need to accept more responsibility for their preparedness, safety, and recovery. In other words, if you see something, do something; help yourself, help your neighbor, help your city, and don’t just wait for the federal resources to arrive.

This is a shift from FEMA’s traditional philosophy of advising citizens before a disaster simply to have three days of provisions on hand to sustain themselves until federal assistance arrives. Is a more active civilian role during a natural disaster advisable? Yes and no. While empowering civilians to do more for their own safety and survival has benefits for both citizens and responders, it is also a fine and potentially dangerous line. If you cross it, the risks for both sides outweigh any benefits.

A few weeks after Long’s speech, on August 25, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast. For the next 96 hours, the massive storm inundated metropolitan Houston with more than 50 inches of rain. In spite of this crushing blow, residents from affected and unaffected areas put Long’s theory into practice, rescuing others, opening their homes, and staffing shelters without being asked. One of the best examples was the so-called “Cajun Navy,” an ad-hoc volunteer group of private boat owners formed in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to assist in search-and-rescue efforts in Louisiana and adjacent areas. The group deployed to Texas post-Harvey with a variety of boats and initiated search-and-rescue operations through flooded neighborhoods. They operated under the established incident management structure where one existed, and self-deployed and initiated operations if they arrived before responders. Similar civilian initiatives joined in, ultimately evacuating thousands of residents to safety. Overall, it was a huge success.

But such actions can also carry significant risks, as conveyed clearly and tragically in an incident on August 25. Swift-water conditions caused by extreme flooding forced a boat carrying five civilians and two journalists into energized power lines; two of the occupants were electrocuted to death, two were swept away by the current and remain missing, and three suffered serious electrical burns but were able to cling to trees until being rescued 20 hours later. The incident happened during an attempt by the boat’s crew to make their third rescue of the day.

So where is the line? What can we legitimately ask of civilians in the early stages of a disaster? During my fire service career, when a structure fire was reported the caller was told to get everyone outside and wait for the fire department. I believe we can ask more—such as perhaps to close doors before they evacuate to isolate the fire—but it’s also critical that citizens consider their personal safety first as well as the scope of the situation and their own abilities. Natural disasters, like structure fires, are dynamic beasts that take full advantage of the lack of skills and training possessed by those who try to control them. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.

Will Harvey create more Cajun Navies, and will a new federal philosophy encourage more civilian actions? If this is the direction we head in, we must remember the events of August 25 and what can go wrong. To Long’s message of “help yourself, help your neighbor, help your community,” I would add “but know your limitations and don’t put yourself at risk.”

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.