AMU Emergency Management Original Public Safety

Avoiding Apathy and Other Cultural Problems in Emergencies

By Allison G. S. Knox
Edge Contributor

After picking up groceries on a recent Sunday afternoon this fall, I was driving on a windy country road in Connecticut. As I turned a corner, I suddenly came upon a pickup truck in need of immediate help. The entire bed of the pickup truck was engulfed in flames.

It was clear to me that it was a gasoline fire, perhaps caused by a spill from a lawn mower in the truck bed. The truck owner was attempting to put out the fire, but it was also clear that he was completely overwhelmed by the flames.

Unable to help him without the appropriate equipment, I drove to the next intersection and attempted to call 911. My phone came up with a text message that said, “Is this the intersection that you’re at?” 

I hit “yes,” but the 911 call would not go through. I kept trying to reach the 911 center. After about a minute, I decided to drive to the nearest fire station, located about three minutes away.

I went to the fire station and found that another person had done the same thing, explaining she didn’t have 911 service. We banged on the door of the fire station and finally, someone answered. We explained about the fire and its serious nature.

The firefighters told us to call 911. We explained that we couldn’t get through to the 911 call center, and the firefighters told us they would not respond without us calling 911. Irritated, we called 911 from one of the volunteer’s phones.

Despite the fact that I saw the fire station had an entire crew on duty, the dispatcher put the call out to the next town. That town’s fire department was at least 10 minutes from the truck fire.

I argued, “But this crew is three minutes away.” The dispatcher responded about the other fire department summoned to the scene, “But it’s their jurisdiction.”

Why Apathy and Other Cultural Problems Matter in Emergency Services

I bring up this story because we can learn a lot from it about the cultural problems that exist in emergency services. Yes, we have all sorts of policies that govern public safety and how we respond to various emergencies. In many cases, emergencies do not fall neatly into categories.

During this truck fire, there was a lot of apathy going on at that fire station. The volunteer department I contacted in person was not willing to jump in and assist. More importantly, they could have radioed to Dispatch to say they were responding, since they were only three minutes away from the scene.

Additionally, those firefighters could have contacted Dispatch and asked to support the other unit, since we knew it would take the firefighters from the other town at least 10 minutes to reach the scene. Similarly, Dispatch should have also looked at the timeframes involved with the various departments responding to this truck fire.

This incident should be a lesson to everyone who works in public safety and emergency management. When you are apathetic, the public notices.

When you don’t think about an entire emergency, you send a serious message to the general public that you can’t be bothered — or trusted — to respond quickly. If you’re apathetic or don’t think about all aspects of an emergency, then why would the public want to support budget or equipment increases?

When it comes to responding quickly to emergencies, think big. Always be willing to rethink a situation and how you can improve your ability to help the public.

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at American Military University and American Public University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison serves as the At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and as Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. She is also chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds four master’s degrees.

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