Becoming a Good Samaritan – The Empowered Reaction to Unexpected Emergencies
When I was 18 years old, I took a trip with friends to an amusement park about 2 hours away from home. We were home from college and excited to have some summer fun. On the highway, however, we came across a horrific wreck. A car had cartwheeled off the road, crashed into the trees along the highway and landed upside down in the drainage ditch that ran parallel to the road. A mother and father were catastrophically injured, their young child was bleeding badly and a grandmother was desperately trying to free herself from the wreckage. Stopping to help was a reaction, not a conscious decision. I arrived alongside a few other early Good Samaritans, all frozen with indecision and fear of the unknown. The small group of bystanders stood in horror until a truck driver ran down the hill towards us screaming, "I’m a medic, we can do this!”
What is a Good Samaritan?
The phrase Good Samaritan has its roots in a Biblical parable from Luke 10:25-37. In the parable, a traveler is beaten and robbed and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. First a priest and then another passerby ignore the injured man and continue on their travels. A Samaritan stopped and offered aid. He used his donkey to carry the injured man to a nearby Inn, offered care and even instructed the Innkeeper to continue to care for him at the Samaritan’s expense. From that story, the notion of a Good Samaritan is born.
Bystanders are the first people on the scene of an emergency. They become Good Samaritans when, like the truck driver and his group of would-be rescuers that day on the highway, they decide to act. I speak from experience when I say that making that decision is difficult. It’s only recently I have come to understand that this trepidation has a name: the Bystander Effect.
What is the Bystander effect?
John Darley and Bibb Latane coined the phrase the "Bystander Effect” to reflect the discovery that, as the number of bystanders witnessing an emergency increases, the likelihood of someone acting to help decreases.
Darley and Latane started their research after the 1964 death of Kitty Genovese. She was raped and murdered in Queens while dozens of her neighbors listened to, even watched, the gruesome attack. No one stepped forward to help as she screamed for assistance. The news reports of the assault and the accompanied criticism of the neighbors as ‘depraved’ and ‘heartless’ led a couple of social scientists in New York City to attempt to explain why ordinary individuals could turn a blind eye to a neighbor’s distress.
The general consensus on why this happened is called the diffusion of responsibility. In large groups of people, every individual assumes that someone else will, or already has, ‘done something.’
- If a bystander is alone, they can’t assume that someone else will take care if the situation, and they are far more likely to react (84% of the time).
- If in a group of four or more bystanders, the diffusion of responsibility has increased and someone will take action more seldomly (31% of the time).
How do we defeat the Bystander Effect?
There’s no single way to entice people into action. As seen in the video below, leaping into action is one way to both begin solving the problem and encourage others to do the same. To be that leader though, especially if effective action is to be taken, it helps to understand the process.
In this video, you can see that the effort starts with one person. A gentleman in a green shirt surveys the situation and decides he’s going to lift the car. He is not alone for long. Moments later, a dozen other bystanders are successfully lifting the burning wreckage off the motorcyclist.
The same researchers from the Kitty Genovese study, Darley and Latane, established a five step sequence that bystanders must complete before anything happens.
- Noticing the emergency – the unusual traffic pattern around the car wreck, smoke billowing from the duct, the sound of gunfire differentiated from construction noise.
- Define the emergency – Is this something I need to do something about?
- Take responsibility – this isn’t to say that the bystander ‘owns’ the situation, just that they are taking responsibility to act…Be the Leader!
- Make a plan – figure out a solution to the best of their ability
- Act – Just Do It!
Completing this sequence could take minutes, seconds or milliseconds depending on the individual and the circumstances. The time it takes to process the situation and act is often referred to as the ‘freeze.’ Until the brain can move through the process, nothing can happen.
Stopping the "Freeze”
To thwart the freeze, or at least keep it brief, you should develop an Implementation Intention. I know that sounds as complicated as developing 6-pack abs, but it’s really more of a mindset than hours of painstaking work. An Implementation Intention is a predetermined set of If-Then decisions designed to help achieve a goal. In this case, the goal is effectively responding to an emergency.
How can you Develop the Responder Mindset?
The first big step is deciding that you will be ‘that person’ that takes action. This is a personal decision and it’s definitely mired in grey areas. Research has shown that individuals are more likely to take action if they know the victim or if they seem connected to the victim in some way – there was no hesitation for concert-goers to help one another in Las Vegas. But what if it’s a complete stranger with whom there is no connection? Developing the mindset of a responder will be crucial in minimizing delays in that scenario.
In previous posts, we’ve discussed situational awareness. Developing everyday situational awareness is also part of creating the responder mindset and pre-determining the Implementation Intention. If you are aware of the emergency exits, the best hiding spots, and the location of the fire extinguisher, AED and trauma kit, you’re already saying to yourself: "If there’s an emergency, I know where the right tools are located and how to best escape if needed.”
How to Practice the Good Samaritan Mindset
There is a difference between having a plan and actual planning. Having a plan means that you’ve thought about how to use a fire extinguisher to put out a fire in the break room. Planning means you’ve actually taken the darn thing off the wall, examined the safety mechanism, felt the weight of the thing, maybe even gotten the safety folks to let you operate an expired extinguisher to experience it first hand.
For medical or trauma emergencies, get prepared. Know the most effective treatments. Know the inventory of supplies at your disposal:
- Is there a kit at work?
- What do I have at home or in the car?
- What do I have with me on vacation?
- What do they have at the soccer field?
Knowing the answers to these questions ahead of time will help hone your situational awareness and develop the responder mindset.
I’ll explain a game that I began playing early in my career as an EMT – it definitely helped create my own personal Implementation Intention. The game is simply called, "What if…”. I began playing it as a new EMT, and former Boy Scout, trying desperately to always be prepared. Over time I taught it to newer employees and eventually used it as an exercise with Paramedic students. Periodically over the day, I survey what’s going on around me and create a worst case scenario.
- "What if Dave in accounting has a heart attack, what should I do?”
- "What if that car rolled down the embankment, what would I do first?”
- "What if that woman tripped and hit her head on the bench, what would be the priority?”
- "What if that gas tanker rolled over on this bridge and spilled flaming fuel oil onto the packed commuter train below?”
I think you get the idea. The exercise has no limits. Be aware of situations where you find yourself stumped. If you can imagine a scenario, and have no clue how to safely and effectively take action, do a little research, prepare for the worst and be ready for everything!
Just a note, for untrained responders looking to do the right thing, ‘action’ may be escorting as many people as possible to a safe distance and calling 911. Know your limitations, use well-informed situational awareness and make good decisions for yourself and those around you.
The Mobilize Rescue System – A Tool to Help Overcome the Bystander Effect
I have been involved in EMS for 20 years now. I firmly credit the accident that I witnessed, and the absolute understanding that I had no clue what to do, as the reason for my career choice. That car wreck remains one of the worst incidents I’ve ever seen. The young boy was orphaned that day. The highway was shut down so helicopters could fly both he and his grandmother to trauma centers. I remember driving away that day knowing that I never wanted to experience that feeling of helplessness again. I helped design the Mobilize Rescue System to ensure no one would ever have to feel helpless at the scene of an emergency ever again.
To join our campaign to #Mobilize1Million civilians to overcome the Bystander Effect and become First Care Providers by National Stop the Bleed Day (#NSTBD18), send us an email at MobilizeNOW@mobilizeRescue.com.
Something to add to this blog? Share it in the comments!