First Steps of a First Responder

The first step to take at an accident of any kind is to stop, take a few deep breaths, and perform a complete 360 degree sweep of the accident scene and your surroundings. Remember, your safety is key, so be sure to assess any safety issues before you proceed. Keep yourself safe by following these steps:

  • Park your vehicle in a safe spot that's out of the way of any other moving vehicles, being careful not to block traffic.

  • Check for any visible fuel or potentially combustible liquid on the ground, and make sure to park a safe distance away if you find any.

  • Look for any downed power lines to avoid, put on your emergency brake and your hazard lights, and call 911.

  • Check for traffic and exit your vehicle.

Do not run across any busy traffic lanes; you will not be able to help if you also become injured.

Approaching the Accident and Taking Charge

Your next steps should be:

  • Bring the first-aid kit from your vehicle and quickly but carefully approach the scene while scanning and assessing

  • Shout, “I'm here to help, is anyone hurt?”

  • Ask the first person you see how many passengers he thinks are involved.

  • If everyone visible appears unconscious or unresponsive, do a fast visual scan of the surrounding area for additional people that may have been ejected as you move around vehicles.

  • If there are other adults with you or nearby, take charge and ask for help as you need it in the most assertive way you can, without raising panic in others.

It's vital that professional rescuers and medical teams be on the way, so if you have not been able to call 911, ask someone else to call or go for help. Use common sense if you need to leave the scene to summon help yourself. Note if there are unmoving persons in the vehicles. If a small fire or heavy smoke is coming from the front of a car, threatening any passengers inside, then remove the persons from danger (without endangering yourself) before going for help. Above all else, summoning help and enlisting help in all your actions is a top priority.

Alert!

It's important to note and be aware that people have a legal right to refuse medical care and that includes the right to refuse your help. Again, act appropriately for the situation, but remember that “no” means “no” in a courtroom.

Safety Measures at the Scene

In order to remain safe you must stay at least fifteen yards away from any downed power lines and always assume that they are live. Power lines that are touching any objects may also charge that object, and you may receive a fatal shock just being too close. Stop immediately if you feel any tingling sensations, put your feet together, and hop or shuffle away from the area, being very careful not to touch anything.

If a vehicle is on its side and is unstable, try to stabilize it, but only if it's necessary for your safety and/or the safety of those injured. Instruct everyone in the area not to smoke. If you are able to reach inside safely, turn off ignition switches and apply emergency brakes. If hoods are accessible and there is no indication of fire, carefully open the hood and remove the battery cable if you can.

It's very important that you never move an injured person unless you feel they will die if they are not moved. Always assume that an injured person has a neck injury and attempt to stabilize their head by placing one hand on each side of it so the head stays in line with the spine and doesn't move until help arrives.

Essential

When you are a first responder and EMS arrives, get out of their way but remain available to answer questions and render additional assistance if they ask for it. Because you were first on the scene, you may have lifesaving information to give EMS!

Sharing the Calm

One of the most important things you can do for an injured person is to reassure them and give them the impression that you are calm, even if you don't really feel that way. A violent accident and its aftermath can be emotionally traumatic, but in the moment, you must try to compartmentalize and put away any sense of fear or horror in order to help injured people as best as you can. People have been known to survive injuries that everyone on the scene believed were fatal. It is possible that a critically injured person may either fight for life and survive, or give up hope and expire, based at least in part on what they believe you think of their situation, so act confidently.

Your Personal Aftermath

Responding to a major accident with serious, sometimes fatal, injuries may be emotionally traumatic, even though at the time it may have been exciting and adrenaline pumping. Many people, even professionals, experience a wide range of delayed emotional responses when the event is over. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that may develop after a terrifying ordeal involving physical harm, the threat of physical harm, or after witnessing a harmful event. You may experience the following symptoms of PTSD:

  • Startling easily

  • Feeling emotionally numb

  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy

  • Having trouble feeling and expressing affection (emotional numbing)

  • Irritability

  • Aggressiveness or acting out in violent ways

  • Reliving the trauma (flashbacks) in thoughts during the day and in nightmares during sleep

Symptoms typically begin within three months of the event, but it's possible to have symptoms years later. The course of PTSD also varies, and some people recover fully after six months, some have symptoms for a longer period, and in some, PTSD will be a chronic condition.

Fact

Coping with PTSD symptoms is often an ongoing challenge that you can learn how to do through treatment. You can find help for PTSD from the National Center for PTSD by e-mailing ncptsd@va.gov or calling the toll-free information line at 1-802-296-6300.

There are many programs designed to help you cope with PTSD that will lead to fewer and less-intense reactions, and allow you to manage trauma-related emotions with greater confidence. Some interventions include talking to your doctor about your trauma and your symptoms, talking to another person for support, practicing relaxation methods, learning how to increase positive distracting activities, talking to a counselor, and prescribed medications.

Negative coping actions such as isolation, use of drugs or alcohol, working too hard or too much, unhealthy eating, violent behavior, anger and rage, and different types of self-destructive behavior will only perpetuate the problem, increase symptoms, and further decrease your quality of life.

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