Introduction: This paper is a report on an exercise designed to reveal the extent of belief in the common myths about disasters held by members of four groups of students from the University of Massachusetts and three groups of trainee emergency workers from Italy.
Methods: A questionnaire was administered in which students and trainees were asked to agree or disagree with 19 statements about disasters. These statements were based on common misconceptions about disasters and are at least statements untenable in statistical terms, if not downright wrong. In each case, a Likert scale was used to assess the strength of the students' and trainees' agreement or disagreement with the statements.
Results: The results suggest that some of the misconceptions (for example, that panic and looting are widespread reactions to disaster) were strongly held, whereas others (for instance, that disasters cannot be managed) were less well-rooted. Despite years of refutation by experts, all groups firmly believed that dead bodies constitute a health hazard if they are not disposed of quickly. Attitudes to the proposition that technology offers a solution to the disaster problem were equivocal.
Conclusions: Though the results of the study by no means were homogeneous, students and emergency workers, on either side of the Atlantic, bring many of the same misconceptions that the mass media continually propagates. These beliefs represent a serious challenge for the instructor who wants to ensure that disasters and emergencies are not misconstrued.