Several months ago, as I was driving to work, I came over a small hill in a light morning rain to see a small truck, steam pouring from the engine, crushed around a telephone pole in a ditch. I pulled up several yards past the accident scene and over to the side of the road, putting on my hazard lights and grabbing my cell phone. A former lifeguard and childcare provider, I've been through dozens of first aid and CPR trainings in my life, and I immediately began running through scenarios in my head of what to do first and how best to help.
And then I really messed up.
I ran headlong toward this accident scene, dialing 911 and handing my phone to a passerby who asked if he could help. I ran right down the embankment to the crashed truck and down into the muddy ditch. And in doing so, I neglected to follow a key rule: assess the scene and ensure it's safe to approach. It doesn't help first responders if the good samaritans, in trying to help, turn themselves into additional victims to treat. I did not assess whether the vehicle was stable, in position or condition, nor did I think about how easily a second vehicle could slide at the same point in the road, as the rain increased and visibility decreased, and collide with the existing accident scene. This is Rule #1: TRULY assess the situation. Determine if it is safe to approach.
The driver was crawling out of his totaled truck as I approached, which is typically our first instinct in an accident: get away from the damaged vehicle in case of fire or explosion, get away from the smoke of the airbag. But in this instance, this was another mistake, because it was altogether very likely this man had suffered head or neck injuries, in which case, unless there is no other choice, waiting in the vehicle for EMTs is the safer course. With the driver on all fours, I got down to support his weight and asked him to stop moving. He simply could not stay upright, though, so I laid him down on his side with as little twisting as possible. He was starting to go into shock, and I called out to the gathering crowd for a blanket, which appeared in moments but did little to help as he lay in the rain-soaked grass and mud.
During this process, the victim was able to speak, so I got the vital information and shouted it up the hill to the passerby who was then on the line with 911 dispatch. I asked for the most important things first:
Name (Always attempt to identify the victim.)
What day is it? Can you tell me where you are? (It is helpful to EMTs to know if a person is oriented to time and place, which helps them assess the potential of a head injury. As the victim could have lost consciousness before EMTs arrived, I tried to gather as much information as possible in that time.)
What hurts? Where are you most injured?
Do you have any major medical conditions?
Are you on any medications?
Do you have any drug allergies?
Is there someone I can call for you?
I missed a big question here, though. Did you spot it? I failed to ask if anyone else was in the vehicle. Even if it's apparent that there isn't anyone else in the car, people can be thrown from vehicles in an accident. It's always important to ask if anyone else was involved, either in the vehicle or on the road.
In this instance, the victim was conscious, but in increasing amounts of pain and rapidly losing his ability to answer. He had no medical ID on him, though, and a quick flip through his wallet and phone revealed little emergency information. So although he was in pain and didn't want to speak, I was able to obtain all of the most important information and relay it to 911 dispatch and again to the EMTs when they arrived, handing over the victim's wallet and cell phone as I gave the police my statement. However, this man could easily have been unconscious. And what then?
This is why we encourage people to consider wearing medical ID jewelry and ICE IDs even when they don't have major health conditions. Sometimes you're alone. Sometimes you need a stranger to help you. And sometimes, you can't speak for yourself. In those scary moments, something as simple as an engraved dog tag on your keychain can mean the difference between minutes and hours before your loved ones are alerted to your situation and by your side.