The “Uberization” of Rescue: Legal Considerations of Peer-to-Peer Rescues during the Harvey Response

September 6th, 2017 by CHHS RAs

By CHHS Extern Jesse Cade

Photo Credit: ABC13/Twitter

Spontaneous volunteers have always been a crucial component of disaster response. Traditionally, these volunteers served in a variety of support roles, while certified and highly trained first responders conducted front-line rescues. However, the specific circumstances and sheer scale of the Hurricane Harvey response caused a shift in this paradigm, with citizens working side-by-side with first responders to help ensure the safety of their fellow citizens. There was a dire need for additional shallow-draft boats and high-water vehicles. But what good would these additional assets be if there was no one available to operate them? All personnel were already engaged in rescues, and additional certified first responders were unable to reach Houston due to impassable roads.  The need for both vehicles and qualified operators led to generalized requests by government officials via press conference and social media for private citizens to assist in effecting rescues. This new response model raises legal and policy issues which have surprising parallels to some of those seen in a collaborative economy. Chief among these issues are the legal status of a volunteer rescuer and the integration of mobile web application technology into response planning.

The legal status of a volunteer rescuer is key in determining whether they receive any form of immunity. Under Texas emergency management law, a volunteer, in conducting activities related to the sheltering of individuals in connection with the evacuation of an area stricken by disaster at the direction of an officer of a state or local agency, is considered to be a member of the Texas military forces for the purposes of liability. Texas military forces members are not personally liable for any actions that are performed in good faith and without intent to defraud. The blanket plea by government officials raises interesting legal questions regarding what constitutes actions “at the direction of an officer of a local agency.” In making a request via press conference, did the Harris County judge render each and every person who responded to the call a member of the Texas military forces? Is more direction required? The social media request asked volunteers to coordinate with the county fire marshal’s office. Did this add a requisite condition? What about individuals who responded despite being completely oblivious to the government’s requests?

This issue can also have serious implications if a volunteer is injured or killed. Jurisdictions will often extend compensation to volunteers, treating them as temporary employees as long as certain criteria are met. It has been reported that at least two individuals have been killed while conducting rescues during the Harvey response. In Texas, workers compensation coverage is extended to individuals who perform volunteer services for the state during a disaster. The statute extends medical benefits to those sustaining injuries while providing such services, but stipulates that the individual must be acting under the direction of an officer or employee of the state. The same questions raised above regarding immunity apply here.

There are other lessons to be learned from the Harvey response regarding the most effective way to deploy, account for, and dispatch volunteer rescuers. When the Harris County officials called for assistance from boat owners via Twitter, they requested potential volunteers to call the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office to coordinate. However, social media users reported having tried for hours to contact the office without getting through, further tying up the Fire Marshal’s Office’s business phone line. Harris County officials operating the county’s twitter accounts also asked for volunteers to pass along their phone numbers and description of their watercrafts’ capabilities via Twitter private message. However, neither of these methods of coordination scaled well. Even armed with this information, it would be difficult for dispatchers to call individuals and determine whether they were positioned and equipped to make a specific rescue. Accounting for this scenario in future preplanning will help avoid some of the trial-and-error that occurred when improvising the coordination mechanism for civilian rescuers.

Some of these inefficiencies in coordination were averted through the resourceful use of <a push-to-talk and location sharing applications, the effectiveness of which has received widespread initial praise. 911 centers were overwhelmed during the height of the storm, causing officials to stress that 911 should only be used for situations which were an imminent threat to life. The web applications facilitated a sort of overflow 911 capability, giving individuals a means of requesting evacuation assistance even if they did not quite meet the threshold of a 911 emergency. These applications, many of which were location-aware, allowed for the closest volunteer rescuer to coordinate directly with the victim they were attempting to find.

Even with the apparent successes of peer-to-peer responses to Harvey, opportunities exist for even greater efficiencies if these technologies are into the traditional response framework. As it stands, these dual means of dispatch could lead to duplicated effort and a breakdown in the application of the Incident Command System’s unity of command principle. Assigning a dedicated government liaison to monitor these communication channels and remain aware of volunteer team locations would help avoid these pitfalls by de-conflicting government and volunteer response. This would allow some 911 calls to be triaged and passed along to a volunteer responder, promoting faster response times and relieving pressure on the 911 system. This would also allow vulnerable populations without smartphones to be rescued more quickly if a volunteer was nearby. In addition to a liaison position, emergency management organizations could consider keeping a dedicated supply of inexpensive VHF radios to issue to responders in the likely event that cellular communication is degraded or unavailable.

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