2 The Problems of Counting
2 The Problems of Counting
2.1 Mass rescue incident and exercise experience has shown that counting people in such circumstances is a significant problem. Even counting people in relatively controlled situations – aboard a rescue unit, for example – can be difficult. Counting accurately in uncontrolled circumstances is practically impossible, especially if rescuers, relatives, reporters etc are mixed up indiscriminately with survivors.
2.2 Yet it is clearly essential that people should be accurately counted. This is partly to ensure that the next stage in the rescue chain can be alerted and prepared – so that there are sufficient reception and land transport facilities available, for example. But the main reason, in SAR terms, is that we need to ensure that everyone involved in the incident has been accounted for.
2.3 To ensure that we have accounted for everyone, we have to know how many people were at risk in the first place. In some cases this will not be known: in the rescue by sea of disparate people caught up in a land-based emergency, for example. In other cases it will be uncertain, or it may only become clear after a good deal of research has been done; when many small craft are overwhelmed by the weather, for example. Exact numbers can be uncertain even on a modern cruise ship or ferry.
2.4 In such circumstances, even accurate counts aboard rescue units, as people are landed, or in reception centres, will not assure us that everyone at risk has been accounted for, for the simple reason that we do not know, for sure, how many people were originally at risk. That is the first 'problem of counting'.
2.5 The second problem is that all the stakeholders in an MRO want to know numbers, and as soon as possible. How many are at risk? How many have been recovered? How many are going to which landing sites? How many buses and ambulances and hospital beds are needed? How many remain aboard? How many are missing...? These are all very important questions and most can, and must, be answered – in due course. But the second problem of counting is that it can assume too great an importance too early; that is, before everyone has been retrieved from grave and imminent danger. Carefully counting all those picked up will not help those left behind in the water.
2.6 There is also a risk of complacency. If we are told that 500 people were aboard the sinking ferry, for example, and quick head-counts aboard an assortment of rescue units give us a total of 500, can we say that everyone at risk has been accounted for? Of course not. There is reason to think that the initial figure might be inaccurate – and every reason to believe that totals arrived at by hasty head-counts will be. In other words, at least in the early stages of an MRO, we cannot account for everyone at risk by counting alone. It follows that we should not focus on counting to the exclusion of other activity.