Storm chasers are at something of a crossroads, a key speaker conceded at their annual convention this weekend.
It’s time they asked themselves a question, Jason Persoff said: If they’re chasing a tornado and they come across a farmstead or town that’s just been hit, should they stop and help?
“There is absolutely no requirement that people render aid,” said Persoff, who is both a doctor and an avid storm chaser. “There’s no law that says you have a duty to act.”
But Persoff — the keynote speaker Sunday at ChaserCon, the national storm chaser convention in Denver — said he also understands human nature.
“I believe that almost all people are inherently good,” he said. “Humans can’t stand to see other humans suffer. At its core, it’s not a human instinct to turn our back on others.”
Yet storm chasers — or residents of a community that has been hit by a tornado — need to fight the impulse to rush in and immediately try to pull victims from rubble, Persoff said.
“That is one of the most dangerous situations: a compulsion to rescue,” he said.
People who aren’t properly trained in search-and-rescue tactics can do more harm than good, resulting in still more casualties.
“A good rescue involves slowing down,” Persoff said. “I like to say, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’
“You take a survey of the situation and begin to think, ‘How are we going to proceed?’ ”
Persoff said he was one of the first chasers to arrive in Joplin, Mo., after about one-third of the city was devastated by a large tornado on May 22, 2011. The EF-5 tornado, which was 3/4 of a mile wide at times with winds in excess of 200 miles an hour, killed more than 160 people and injured more than 1,000 others as it churned through the southern half of the city at speeds as slow as 10 miles an hour.
It was the deadliest U.S. tornado in more than half a century.
As Persoff and his chase partner drove through the city, residents were standing by the street trying to flag them down to help. But Persoff made the decision to go on to the command center.
He ultimately found himself treating patients who had been transferred from St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, which was heavily damaged by the tornado and later had to be razed.
“That was the best single night of my life as a physician,” he said. “I was actually practicing medicine” and not wrestling with paperwork or other aspects of the job that aren’t patient care.
“I just got to be a doctor and that was the best thing in the world for me.”
Storm chasers and nearby residents may well reach an area damaged by a tornado before emergency responders can, he said. That’s why it can be valuable to know what first steps to take in the immediate aftermath of a violent storm.
They can learn those steps, Persoff said, through instruction in the Incident Command System, which is a standardized way to approach a multi-casualty incident. FEMA adopted the system in the wake of 9/11.
The system is available to anyone through a series of free instructional videos, he said, and people can learn important basics in the very first course. More information can be found at training.fema.gov.
“It doesn’t take much organization to get going, and then it can scale upward” as more people arrive to help, Persoff said.
Any attempts to rescue injured should be done in pairs in the event one of the rescuers becomes injured, he said. Shoes with hard soles, gloves and masks should be considered mandatory because of the debris and airborne contaminants such as asbestos that will be present.
Even if they aren’t comfortable offering first aid, Persoff said, chasers or neighbors can set up a command post where survivors can gather and offer information about injuries, missing persons and extent of damage. That information can then be relayed to first responders when they arrive.
Chasers often react in one of two extremes when they come across substantial damage caused by a tornado, Persoff said: They freeze, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they’ve seen, or they simply drive on and “live with the guilt.”
Pausing to help by using the Incident Command System is “a middle ground,” he said.
Persoff said he doesn’t blame chasers who don’t stop to help if they’re convinced they can be of no use or simply don’t want to help.
“At least your ethics are consistent,” he said.
If nothing else, he said, they should call 911 to report what they’ve seen.
But he wants chasers to ask themselves a question as they brace for the storm season just around the corner. That way they will know what to do should they come face-to-face with a mass casualty event.
“If the storm isn’t still going, would you stop and help?” he asked. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ then I believe, ethically, you should stop and help” even if the storm is still active as it moves on.