Is there enough public support for Emergency Services personnel worldwide? Citizens in the Global North often take Emergency Services (ES) for granted. Firefighters, EMTs and other first responders are the bedrock of society – the community looks up to them and appreciates their bravery. Elsewhere in the world, however, this is not always the case.
From conversations with GESA Advisory Council (AC) members across seven Global South countries, GESA has heard stories of community reaction that range the gamut from strong support to outright hostility. In some countries, first responders are seen as heroes, but in many others, opinions of the Emergency Services community are overwhelmed by poor public perceptions of government itself. Ambulances that don’t arrive as needed, firefighters that aren’t adequately trained or resourced, public officials responsible for public safety who have received their posts because of connections, not expertise… Stories from practitioners around the world and Africa, in particular, detail apathy and, occasionally, hostility. How can that be?
Sometimes, the challenge is in creating a culture of deeper understanding or replacing incorrect public perceptions. In Ghana, for example, ambulances historically had served two purposes: transporting the sick and injured to hospitals, but also transporting the dead to mortuaries and cemeteries. A mixed message, to be sure, in a system beset with other problems such as delays and an inadequate dispatching system. Faced with these constraints and more, would you call an ambulance?
In East Africa, a combination of mistaken public expectations and significant lack of resources has often led to a distrust of the fire service. Your sister’s house is burning, so she calls the fire department. The fire service is stretched thin and traffic is so dense that it takes time for them to arrive. Once they do, their only option is to douse the home in water. The fire is out, but now her home has water damage. Your sister is understandably upset – ‘The firefighters are supposed to save my home, but instead it is destroyed.’ When you face an emergency, would you trust the authorities to protect you and your property?
To go deeper into this question of public perception, GESA commissioned a study by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Center for Global Public Safety. We chose Ghana based on WPI’s experience there, looking at the country as a case study to explore how public perceptions of ES could be measured – not just in one country, but at scale across the continent – with an ultimate goal to improve the connection between ES practitioners and their communities.
The findings were interesting. From cultural and technological disconnects – as with ambulances in Accra – to the broader need to communicate with numerous audiences, the challenge is great. There are multiple ‘public’ audiences, for example. Urbanites can be reached via text, but getting an Emergency Services message to a broader citizen audience across incomes and the rural/urban divide will take targeted communications, including work with social media influencers and traditional leaders. Creating higher but realistic expectations for service on the part of the public is crucial to influencing policy. But the study also showed just how complicated it can be to describe what ‘improved service’ means.
As part of the project, the GESA/WPI team developed a series of questions that could be used in outreach to the public, to gauge their understanding of and support for the ES community. Our goal was to create a short survey that could be translated and used anywhere on the continent to get an ongoing sense of the relationship between the ES community and the public: questions around trust, timeliness, ease of use of services, and access emergency aid. What questions would you ask?
Public support is, without question, essential if we are to improve the ES landscape. It is perhaps even more essential in countries with limited budgets, resources and experience. It will take a true alliance of professionals, government, private sector actors and the public to make this happen. Collecting data is crucial. GESA will continue to explore this issue over the coming year. If you are interested in joining this groundbreaking work, or sharing your stories or recommendations, please contact us at email@example.com