09/25/2013 11:18 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Redefining First Response

You've been in a bad car wreck. Your life hangs on one hope: that first responders arrive fast, knowing exactly what to do. In a world beset by conflict and natural disaster, international relief agencies are also first responders, albeit on a larger scale. They respond to emergencies thousands of miles away to save not just one person but entire communities. The work is challenging, undertaken by committed individuals who willingly run toward, not from, harm's way to help those most in need.

But in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable global environment, is this enough?

We know that once disaster strikes, speed saves lives. That's why emergency response organizations like International Medical Corps react so quickly. But the truth is the real first responders to any emergency are those living where the emergency occurs, not the ones who arrive from afar in the chaotic aftermath. Thirty years of experience have taught us that far more lives can be saved by training local residents, giving them the resources and tools they need to be their own First Responders before a crisis hits.

In short, preparation is the most efficient, cost-effective way to save lives, reduce suffering and build self-reliance. Collectively, the global community today spends 1% of aid on disaster preparedness, according to the United National Development Programme. Yet the UNDP tells us that every dollar invested in disaster preparedness saves at least seven dollars in disaster recovery -- and countless lives. As global first responders, we must broaden our definition of first response.

This month, at the Clinton Global Initiative, International Medical Corps will launch a new "First Responders" campaign to improve the lives of more than 600,000 men, women and children in Africa by strengthening communities' capacity to prevent, prepare for and respond to unexpected emergencies both large and small.

Often, those who lose most in a disaster are those most vulnerable before the moment of impact. Reducing that vulnerability prior to an emergency by giving people the knowledge and skills they need can both reduce the damage and strengthen the resilience at all levels of a community. We cannot stop an earthquake, or hurricane, or war, but we can give vulnerable families the knowledge and tools they need to stay healthy, even in the worst circumstances.

Sometimes, the greatest threat to resilience is not the most visible. Globally, a woman dies in childbirth every two minutes. But if women consistently gave birth in facilities -- or even simply in the presence of a trained nurse or midwife -- two million maternal deaths, stillbirths and newborn deaths could be prevented every year (UNICEF). Why would a First Responder wait for the desperate cry of a dying mother to intervene, instead of doing everything possible to prevent her life-threatening complications in the first place?

The answer is we don't. In addition to responding to natural and man-made emergencies, we must train and prepare frontline health workers and community members to be their own First Responders -- whether the emergency is a major earthquake that threatens tens of thousands or a young woman in childbirth fighting for her life. For instance, in Afghanistan, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, we have trained more than 2,000 community-based midwives, each of whom can provide up to 330 women from her own community with maternal health care. That's 660,000 women in Afghanistan who now have a second chance at life. Because of our training and that of our partners, maternal mortality rates have declined by more than 70% in Afghanistan since 2005 (Afghanistan Mortality Survey, 2011).

In Ethiopia, we have employed the Care Group model, through which mothers and fathers are designated as leaders and trained in a broad range of health behaviors - from sanitation practices to nutritional strategies -- that they can use in their own homes with resources from their own community. These mothers and fathers become their own best First Responders. Woven throughout the training are practical activities they can pass on to other caregivers, triggering a multiplier effect through their community that can reach more than 6,000 families and up to 50,000 people. Here, resilience is the difference between malnourished children and caregivers not having resources or answers, and those same children growing up healthy thanks to the knowledge of sanitation and nutrition gained in their own communities from local residents.

As part of our First Responders campaign, we have also assembled a group of actors and public figures who have agreed to use their high profiles to bring greater awareness of the need for strengthening communities before a disaster strikes - so that families are prepared and can be their own First Responders. Current celebrity First Responders include: Global Ambassador Sienna Miller, along with Jamie Bell, Cary Elwes, Ben Foster, Chelsea Handler, Ben Harper, Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kate Mara, Jaclyn Matfus, Robert Pattinson, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Sturridge, Mario Testino, Anna Wintour and Robin Wright.

Together, we must act to ensure more resources are directed before disaster strikes so that the real First Responders -- those who live where the emergency occurs -- have the skills and tools they need to better protect themselves and their families.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in conjunction with the latter's ninth Annual Meeting (September 23-26 in New York City). This week, President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton convene more than 1,000 global leaders under the Annual Meeting's theme for 2013 -- Mobilizing for Impact -- to advance solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. For more information on the Annual Meeting, click here. To see all of the posts by CGI mobilizers in the series, click here.