Not Your Mama’s Disaster Response: Emergent Search and Rescue Groups In 2017

In 1920 a man named Samuel Prince published his dissertation and started a field of inquiry that would, 100 years later, emerge as the discipline of emergency management. Prince had been in Halifax during the 1917 explosion and wrote the first systematic study of a disaster response and recovery. Prince had observed “spontaneous groupings” (Prince, 1920, p. 41) that formed during the immediate moments of the explosion and later, noted the formation of a more formal group, “the Citizens Relief Committee” to coordinate recovery efforts (p. 82).

During disasters, survivors and people from surrounding areas see needs in the community and go about coordinating themselves in an effort to address those needs. They don't need to be told what to do, they figure it out as they go. 

Over the next decade’s researchers all over the world who studied disasters would find that these spontaneous, new groups were present during every disaster (here are some of the most famous studies: Dynes & Quarantelli, 1968; Form & Nasow, 1958; Forrest, 1978; Quarantelli, 1966, 1984; Taylor, Zurcher, & Key, 1970).

Emergent groups form to address all types of needs during response, recovery, mitigation, and preparedness but the ones I see most capturing the attention of the media are the groups that undertake search and rescue efforts.

Before the creation of a formal emergency management system, these groups were emergency management. They are described by journalists, and later researchers matter of factly. They are written about as evidence of community coming together to address needs during times of unpredictability. 

Once emergency management began to formalize these groups began to be viewed somewhat negatively. Those within the formal emergency management system are recorded as saying that these untrained groups “got in the way” of their response efforts. More broadly their presence was viewed by those in the field as a failure of emergency planning. The thinking went that if the formal system had planned adequately there would not be unmet needs and these groups wouldn’t need to form.

Very recently we’ve seen the start of a third shift in thinking that views emergent groups as a feature of the emergency management system. A recognition that we can’t plan for everything and logistically it’s not possible for the formal system to address every need the second they arise has likely contributed to the new found acceptance of these groups. Research tells us we can expect emergent groups will form under certain conditions, we should account for them in our plans, and work with them when they do emerge. This is reflected in FEMA's "Whole Community" approach. In fact, FEMA Administrator Brock Long made reference to this during the Hurricane Harvey Response. 

It is likely that the high profile of emergent groups during large events like 9/11 and Katrina have contributed to this third shift in thinking. During 9/11 the evacuation of Manhattan was accomplished largely through improvisation, including the coordination of boat captains. During Katrina and the New Orleans levee failure formal search and rescue efforts were largely subsidized by locals who jumped in their boats and started bringing people to safety. These efforts evolved to the point of being named, "The Cajun Navy". (During the 2016 Louisiana floods and again during Hurricane Harvey the Cajun Navy reactivated and began formalizing their efforts. This formalization actually opens the door for arguments about their status as an "emergent group" but that's a differnet story.) 

100 years after Prince first noted them, groups are still emerging during disaster. There's not much evidence that their fundamental structure and the tasks they engage in have changed much from the groups in the early 1900’s. However, these groups now have an ability to communicate and coordinate in a way that was logistically not possible 100 years ago, even 20 years ago. 

Social media barely existed during 9/11 and Katrina. The 2008 Gustav evacuation of New Orleans was the first time Twitter was around during the evacuation of a major US city. I personally used twitter during the evacuation to keep friends from back home aware of what was going on (pre-smartphone meant I was texting in tweets from the road). 

Now, social media and smartphones are ubiquitous. We are only in the very early stages of studying the role of social media during response but it's safe to say that as long as people have access to working phones during disaster, they're a big deal. Particularly as they allow for instant crowdsourcing and coordination. You can now volunteer and be apart of an emergent group completely online and be directly involved in the response thousands of miles away. Facebook groups now spring up at the first sign of disaster to coordinate local efforts. People are able to post their location and contact information so rescuers know where help is needed. And this is just for search and rescue. We saw a preview of this last summer during the Louisiana flooding but it came into full national focus during Hurricane Harvey.

These platforms are used as a conduit for warnings, forecasts, evacuation instructions, shelter locations, donation collection and distribution, volunteer coordination, coordinating recovery efforts, reunification, and organizing preparedness and mitigation efforts in non-emergency times. The value of the internet and smartphones in helping emergent response groups form and coordinate cannot be understated. We need more research in this area and we need research that is situated within an emergency management framework. 

The combined power of social media and the phenomenon of emergent groups opens the door for a kind of emergency management that few have stopped to fully envision.