Choices to Enable Our Emergency Response-Ability (Itch #2)

6 ideas and 8 suggestions to be response-ABLE at any scale of emergency

Beth Sanders
10 min readSep 14, 2021


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As the scale of emergency grows, the ability of a community to be proactive, responsive and response-ABLE becomes imperative. As the scale of crisis grows from a sprint rescue event to an ultramarathon season, including sprint rescues, it is also imperative to differentiate between the different kinds of work we do to ensure our communities and cities serve us well. It is necessary for citizens to serve our communities well.

Scales of emergency

When I call 911 for firefighters to come and put out the fire in my neighbour’s house, I engage in a community feedback system to tell the people with expertise in fighting fires that they are needed. They zip over to my neighbour’s home and get the job done. Their role is active, mine as a community member is passive.

In contrast, the skilled firefighters in British Columbia, Canada, have spent the bulk of the summer handling wildfires (1590 fires to date as of September 13, 2021). A range of firefighting experts actively suppress the fires, and my role as a community member is passive. But when a wildfire engulfs a town like Lytton, BC, far more than trained personnel are involved in the emergency event.

Here’s what I imagine: community members share vital information about when to leave and in which direction, they check on neighbours to make sure they can get out of town, and people with gassed-up vehicles offer rides to others. Neighbouring communities provide shelter, clothing and food. And anyone nearby makes sandwiches for firefighters. The whole community, and the communities around that community, are working to minimize harm to human life and, if possible, our belongings.

There’s an important distinction to make: the sprint is our response to what we perceive as an emergency in our human experience. We need to act fast to avoid harmful results.

The ultramarathon — fighting fires for a season — may or may not involve a sprint. From a human perspective, many forest fires burn with no risk to us, no threat to human settlement. It’s only when the fires get close to where we live that we feel the need to sprint when the fire is upon us.

The work of first responders

In everyday language, “first responders” are the people who show up and take the lead in sprint-like situations with skills others on the scene do not have. They put out fires, get us out of buildings or vehicles when we’re trapped, and perform medical wizardry. Their job is to rescue us, and we confer authority over us in formal and informal ways. This specialized work is a vital contribution to our cities and communities.

When the scale of the event grows, like seasonal fire complexes, there is a role for authority but the role of community increases. Think about the community that pops up to ensure firefighters have water and sandwiches or make sure displaced people have clothes, food and shelter. First responders are trained to play specific and vital roles in emergency response. The community has an essential yet different role, and as the scale of the emergency increases, the role of the community increases to complement the first responders.

A diversity of work is needed

Whatever the scale of an emergency, putting out a fire today or halting Earth’s rise in temperature, we need the specialized work of first responders. We need them without a climate crisis, and we need them with the climate crisis.

Community has a role to play in how we handle emergencies. Community participates in emergencies in three ways:

  1. Prevent emergencies — when we are proactive and prevent the need for rescue.
  2. Tell emergency responders when they are needed — when we use the feedback systems in place, like calling 911.
  3. Support emergency responders — when we get out of the way, provide sandwiches and water to them when they are in a marathon or ultramarathon event, pay taxes and monitor the funding choices government makes.

The contributions of first responders and community are both needed. In addition, we need the work of researchers and scientists, and the people who build the feedback systems that allow us to learn about what might happen, what is happening, what responses are effective, what supports are necessary, and in the end, what worked and what needs improvement.

We need multiple capacities to prevent and handle emergencies effectively. At the core, we need the ability — in everyone — to create, use and act on feedback loops.

Our choices

Our cities and communities embody a diversity of skills that contribute to the well-being of the whole community. Some of us are first responders, and others are teachers, truckers, researchers, caregivers, cashiers or dentists. We each contribute to the city we all experience through our work. There are two facets to how we participate in emergencies, whatever the scale: reaction and prevention.

We are most familiar with “reaction” — when we respond TO the emergency while we are IN the emergency as it unfolds. We know we are in the emergency, and we are involved. When our town or city is on fire, we move to evacuate. When it is a neighbouring community, we choose to help out. The situation embodies the words that define emergency, “Fast action to avoid harmful results.” Now. Not later, but now.

But what happens when the emergency is not apparent to all of us?

If we dare to look, the indicators that “harmful results” are already happening in front of us. Fast action is needed to avoid more.

Just as I can dismiss the news that I have heart disease and need to change my behaviour, I can avoid the news that our planet is warming and need to change my behaviour. If I don’t believe it, I won’t hear it, and I won’t change even if you tell me to. Especially if you tell me to.

And so, we are in a realm, collectively, of both needing to take action while creating the conditions for people to make healthy choices. The pandemic and the climate crisis are similar in this respect: we face global scales of needed cooperation that are baffling, huge and complicated. And factor into this that humans would rather not change unless necessary. (The catch: we have different ideas about where to find the line of “necessary.”)

The vital work for us to do at this time is to enable ourselves to be response-ABLE.

6 ideas and 8 suggestions to be response-ABLE

Below are six ideas to foster our response-ability in times of emergency and eight suggestions about how to act on these ideas. They apply at every scale.

1. Be clear about our roles in emergency response

For community to respond effectively to our climate situation, we must not confuse our community roles in emergency response with the work of trained professionals. Community members are not “first responders,” trained in fire suppression strategies, how to rescue people during a flood or organize a safe evacuation. As community members, our roles are to prevent, inform and support. It is essential to differentiate our vital, specialized contributions to emergencies.

Suggestion #1: Use language that differentiates and describes the unique roles of “first responders” and community members.

2. Develop our capacity to choose our stress response and be response-ABLE

The words “first responder” reinforce a deeply coded rescuer/victim pattern in first responders and the wider community, reinforcing a fear-based stance that strengthens what Stephen Karpman calls the drama triangle: hero/rescuer, victim and perpetrator. The drama triangle triggers our autopilot stress responses, which means we do not choose how we respond to what is happening around us. Instead, we react in automatic ways that may or may not be wise or healthy courses of action.

When caught the drama triangle, being a first responder feels good because I am taking action; it doesn’t matter if the action is wise or not. Or I feel good because I take on the role of the martyr, taking action when others are not. Or I feel victimized because no one else is taking action, and I will get caught in this mess.

Yes, a response to the climate crisis is necessary, but when our need to respond drives our action, we get caught in a business-as-usual stance that disables our ability to be responsive to our circumstances. Here’s the distinction: act because I need to feel I’m taking action vs. act because this is the right thing to do to improve or resolve our circumstances.

Suggestion #2: Emphasize learning opportunities to learn to CHOOSE our stress responses, whatever our role.

Suggestion #3: Save “first responder” language for circumstances when rescue is involved in the present, now.

Suggestion #4: Notice the strategies we use to avoid our emotional response to emergency situations. (I avoid my emotions by jumping into action mode, playing the victim and blame others for everything, and every once and a while stepping in and try to rescue someone.)

3. Develop our empowerment capacities

The drama triangle dynamic is insidious because it places my attention on what I need now to feel better about my situation. It keeps my attention away from possibility and growth. Further, this dynamic reinforces and invites polarization. Bottom line: first responder language, when not about responding to sprint emergencies in the present, short-circuits our capacity to build resilience and adaptability in human systems.

Suggestion #5: Escape the drama triangle by fostering creator, challenger and coach capacities (David Emerald’s The Empowerment Dynamic).

4. Focus on the quality of action

First responder language emphasizes the timing of action rather than the quality. “First” implies that no action has been taken to date or that the efforts underway do not count. The climate effort (and racial inequality, power inequities, grappling with the pandemic, etc.) is a long-term endeavour, not a sprint. The success of a long-distance effort depends upon inner stamina, not the sprint of a first responder.

Suggestion #6: Use language that focuses on the quality of action rather than timing. How does this action respond to more than the emergency at hand? How does this action create negative and positive consequences?

5. Use ecological metaphors

There are no first responders in ecological systems. The rescue role is a human construct with a hard-to-find balance between care (helping out when needed) and exercising and reinforcing power systems.

We use military language when we work to “combat” or “fight” climate change or “battle” against the pandemic. We are polarized in our stances (choose your topic), keenly noticing who is with us or against us. We don’t often use the word “enemy,” but it is always there.

In a sprint emergency, we need hierarchy to snap into action, with clear roles and responsibilities. The best fire chief I’ve worked with recognized that once the emergency was over, the hierarchy needed to relax, that command-and-control ways of operating were no longer appropriate. In an ultramarathon or longer distance, there needs to be room for community and distributed guidance.

A militaristic stance erodes our capacity to create and reinforce our interconnectedness and our ability to regenerate ourselves. An ecological stance, with a balance of naturally occurring hierarchies and self-organizing systems, pulls us into new and interconnected ways of being.

Suggestion #7: Use a metaphor or language that embodies ecology rather than rescue.

6. Build resilience and adaptability in human systems

At every turn, we can choose to emphasize the opportunities to build resilience and adaptability in human systems — while taking ACTION — so we can contribute in healthy ways to planetary systems. To do this, we must create the conditions for changing within ourselves; otherwise, we run on autopilot, creating the future we do not want.

In addition to being able to change, we also need to be willing to change. We need to be able to initiate change. All of this is internal work that shapes everything we do in the outside world.

Suggestion #8: As we create change initiatives to respond to our changing world, we must invest in the personal work of consciously creating ourselves.

Our response-ability is in me and you, in us

I create my reality, you create yours, and we create ours. We’re in this together. The best way I can change the world, the best action I can take is in me. Except when there is a fire or an accident, and I need to call on the expertise of an emergency first responder.


  • Think about a time when you responded to an emergency from a place of panic and a time when you responded to an emergency from a place of calm. Compare how these experiences felt deep inside you. Compare the effectiveness of your response in the short and long term — for yourself, for others and where/when these events took place.
  • When things are tough, and you are able to respond responsibly, what contributes to your being able to respond intros way? If you have not been able to react responsibly, what could you do to foster this capacity within yourself?
  • What is one thing you can do every day, or once a week, to better look after yourself so you can respond to emergencies from a centred place of inner wisdom?

This article is the second in a series about the relationship between community and emergency.

  1. Scales of emergency response (Itch #1)— As the scale of emergency grows, the ability of community to be proactive, responsive and response-ABLE becomes imperative.
  2. Choices to enable our emergency response-ability (Itch #2) — 6 ideas and 8 suggestions to be response-able at any scale of emergency.

This article first appeared at



Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.