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Proposed Disaster Legislation Is Informed by Sociological Research

by Lee Herring, ASA Public Affairs Office

In the August 2 Air France plane crash in Toronto, passengers did not panic as some reports stated. Contrary to popular belief, passengers may have been scared, but because they did not panic, everyone escaped safely,” said sociologist and disaster researcher Lee Clarke, Rutgers University.

Sociological research has been demonstrating for some time now that as first responders in emergency situations, “ordinary” people tend not to panic, but instead more typically exhibit normal altruistic type behavior and social coordination. Data to this effect contradict popular and uncorroborated, reflex-like news accounts. Reaction to a disaster is “spur of the moment.” And lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning to recognize this sociological phenomenon. For example, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) introduced his Ready, Willing and Able Act [HR 3565] on July 26. The bill extensively taps concrete knowledge (extracted from sociological research) about actual human behavior in disaster situations. Sociologist Kathleen Tierney, Director of the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center, was cited in the legislation. The bill’s objective is to change mind-sets and urge elected officials to engage the public in the development of emergency plans. It aims specifically to avoid the adverse consequences of failing to incorporate citizens’ knowledge, and avoid alienating Americans as citizen-participants, thereby jeopardizing the ability of the United States to respond effectively to domestic emergencies. To quote Rep. Kennedy, “Direct, participatory community-based disaster planning incorporates unique local conditions of culture, geography, language, and infrastructure, as a fail-safe against developing unrealistic emergency plans, and gives citizens a meaningful role in preparing for disasters.”

Kennedy’s bill has already gained support from members of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Co-sponsors of his bill include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Jim Langevin (D-RI), and others. ASA’s July/August 2004 Footnotes newsletter (see bottom photo and caption) described early meetings with Kennedy’s legislative staff as he began developing an earlier version of the bill. The bill can be found at frwebgate.access.

Renowned mathematical/decision-science psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, Carnegie Mellon University, published an August 7 New York Times op-ed that captures the importance of the general public as first responders. Because of the many other recent disasters, those in the media have also taken more notice of disaster sociologists as society continues to be impacted.