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  • Rowan

No training, no gear - How to be your own first responder

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

In my last article, I talked about the difference you can make with basic medical training. Having training and equipment like tourniquets or gauze is great but what if you have nothing? What can you do if you either don't have any training or don't feel comfortable rendering medical aid?

Call for help - If you end up at the scene of an emergency one of the first things you can do is call 911. Trained first responders can't help you until they get to you and that process doesn't start until 911 is alerted to an emergency. Don't assume someone has already called, they may be busy rendering aid and focused on that task. When you speak with the 911 operator they are going to need to know a brief outline of the nature of the emergency along with the location. Be sure to accurately describe the scope of the emergency to the best of your ability. If you arrive at the scene of a car crash with 5 cars involved you will likely have numerous victims. If you just tell the operator you are at a car crash they may only send one ambulance. If the emergency involves smoke, fire, or possible hazardous materials make sure to mention that so fire personnel can be dispatched. Medical providers are taught to only respond to a scene once it has been made safe, if there is any doubt they will stage at a safe distance.

911  dispatcher
She would love to help you but you have to call first!

Help make the scene safe - If you aren't directly involved in life-saving or rescue efforts you have an opportunity to look at the scene as a whole. Maybe you could park your vehicle with your hazards on to protect people in the road, maybe you have flares or cones you could use or you can simply keep an eye out for hazards like downed power lines, oncoming traffic, leaking fuel, or fires. If someone is on-scene and helping victims there is a good chance they will have major tunnel vision and will be purely focused on that task.

Please keep in mind you need to consider your own safety at all times. Even huge bright red firetrucks covered in flashing lights occasionally get hit by vehicles when they park to protect scenes. If you choose to use your vehicle carefully consider whether or not oncoming drivers will be able to see it and stop in time. Even having your vehicle parked nearby in a safe location with your hazards on can help to alert drivers that something is going on. Never stay sitting in your vehicle in the road.

These firetrucks were blocking my way...because everything was on fire

This is why blocking traffic is dangerous, even in a giant, bright red truck covered in flashing lights.

Keep people calm - As a professional first responder at a scene I had a lot of tasks to accomplish as quickly and efficiently as possible. In addition to possibly rendering aid, I also had to communicate with dispatch and my fellow deputies and help coordinate whatever resources were needed. At the same time, the scene was often an active crime scene so scene safety and evidence preservation were also vital. I always appreciated when there was someone there who kept a cool head and helped to calm people down. If you can keep unhelpful bystanders away and maintain some sense of order it frees up those rendering aid to focus on their task. Keeping injured victims calm can make a huge difference. Simply talking to them in a calming tone and being there for them could make the difference between them slipping into shock or not.

Keep calm and carry on
British accents are especially soothing

Guide first responders to the scene - If you come across a crashed semi-truck in the middle of the freeway there is a good chance first responders will have an easy time finding you. This is not the case in rural areas, apartment complexes, large buildings, or unmarked streets. As a first responder, it is extremely frustrating to know you are where dispatch told you to go but you don't know which unmarked rural driveway or apartment building is the correct location. As a deputy it was not uncommon to deal with unmarked dirt roads, houses with no street numbers, and rural properties covered in outbuildings. If you are not needed at a scene you can go to where a first responder is likely to arrive and help guide them directly to the scene. If you are in a building go outside and lead them in, if you are on a side street or driveway go down to the main road where approaching vehicles will pass and direct them to the scene. After leading the first arriving unit to the scene you can go back to help direct other responding units so they don't have to waste radio time figuring out where to go.

Stuck patrol car
This guy could have used a heads-up about the road conditions...he isn't helping anyone fast

Mitigate shock - Even if you have no medical training you can help prevent one of the most dangerous effects of major injury and trauma, shock. When I say shock I don't mean someone who is shocked at what just happened to them but the life-threatening condition caused by a sudden drop in blood flow. Shock is often characterized by pale, cool, clammy skin, confusion, shallow breathing, profuse sweating, and anxiety. Just keeping someone calm, comfortable, and warm can help prevent them from slipping into shock. Speak with them calmly and slowly, let them know help is on the way and you are there for them. If you have blankets or spare clothes you can make sure they stay warm. If there is no reason to suspect spinal injuries you can place them in a comfortable position.

Shock victim
A simple blanket could save a life

Be a good witness - Sometimes the best thing you can do in a situation is simply be a good witness. Whether it is witnessing an assault or a drunken driver swerving into another car, your witness statement might mean the difference between a conviction or an unknown suspect that never gets caught. Eyewitness accounts from people involved in traumatic incidents are notoriously unreliable. The brain has far too much going on to accurately remember precise details and timelines. As an uninvolved third party, you may have a much better chance at remembering what happened and providing a good statement to first responders.

Eye witness
If you have a chance write down what you observe

Don't get involved at all - There are certainly times when the best thing you can do is either remove yourself from the situation or not get involved at all. If there is already a crowded scene and it appears everything is being handled staying away can be the best option. Having 10 people jammed into an elevator to help one person do CPR isn't going to help.

Your safety comes first

The first thing that is hammered into every EMT and paramedic is scene safety. You will immediately fail your exams and scenarios if you choose to enter a scene without first protecting yourself. The same applies to a good Samaritan, you are no help to anyone if you become a victim in the process of trying to assist. Getting involved in any kind of emergency carries a certain level of risk, these risks can obviously be physical but also mental. Being witness to trauma, death, and grief, is not something that you will forget. Consider your own situation and risk factors before intervening with anything. Helping someone perform CPR on a heart attack victim in the grocery store is different than rushing to a burning car wreck while your wife and kids are in the car watching. Never forget your first priority is keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. If you are not a professional first responder it is not your job to get involved, nor do you have a legal obligation to do so. That is a decision you will have to make yourself but hopefully I've given you some tools for the toolbox if you find yourself as an unplanned first responder.

Stay safe out there!

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