Professional Standards and Legal Standard Setting: INSARAG, FMTs, and International Disaster Relief

Professor Kirsten Bookmiller, Director of the Global Partnerships Initiative, Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, participated in a panel discussion on Responses to International Disasters at the 2015 Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law Symposium. Her related article addresses the regulation of international disaster relief volunteers.

When natural disasters strike, a common human response to the media coverage and images of destruction and suffering is to feel a compulsion to help. While some may donate to international relief organizations, a smaller subset of people—especially those with medical or emergency response training—are particularly well suited to provide on-the-ground humanitarian aid to the country impacted by the disaster. However, medical training alone does not necessary prepare a person or group to enter a disaster zone; and occasionally, those who show up unprepared can cause more harm than good, however well-intentioned they may be. Unaffiliated or unprepared volunteers can put a strain on already limited resources, and create chaos in a time when order and organization is crucial.

The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) was the first to devise protocols for coordination, classification and registration of humanitarian response teams during sudden onset natural disasters. Following the advances made by INSARAG, the Foreign Medical Team Working Group (FMT-WG) is pursuing new professional standards that can be applied not only to the emergency medical sector, but also to emergency response teams more broadly.

Professor Bookmiller’s article highlights two principle assertions related to emergency responses to humanitarian disasters: (1) that soft-law-oriented guidelines for emergency response teams can address highly time-sensitive, operational challenges faced by both the responding and the disaster-affected states; and (2) that ongoing professional self-regulation within specific disaster response sectors may bolster disaster-affected state confidence and willingness to open its borders to outside relief.