Well, I was planning on starting out my first blog post exploring some topic such as “What is Wilderness First Aid” or “How can Wilderness First Aid be used when you aren’t in the wilderness” or some other prosaic, albeit useful, discussion. But, the best laid plans of mice and men… Instead, I’ve been mulling over a news article that I read a few days ago regarding the end fate of several men, who were volunteering their time to help out some of the victims of the flooding of Hurricane Harvey this past week in Texas.
One of the very first concepts that is taught in a Wilderness and Remote First Aid (WRFA) class is that of assessing scene safety. The primary takeaway from this section of the class is “do not enter an unsafe scene” if you are the responder. Why? The main reason is that, by entering an unsafe scene, you as the responder can also become a victim. This then complicates the response by adding additional victims, while simultaneously reducing the number of available trained responders. However, getting students to internalize this concept while performing scene size up can be difficult. For those of us who share the desire to help others, it is sometimes difficult to rein in the desire to run to help. Despite what many news reports would have us believe, people in general are very kind and giving and many would not hesitate to help someone in need. But this desire to help can sometimes be our own undoing if we race out to give aid when conditions surrounding the victim are unstable and unsafe.
The story to which I refer is about Yahir Vizueth and Jorge Perez and the five other men who were in their boat. If you read the stories about these men, they voluntarily put themselves at risk to help others. Having made two trips and having rescued seven people from the flood waters, the men went out for another trip. However, during this trip they apparently lost control of their boat in the swift current and were swept into live electrical wires. The result of this third rescue trip was that Vizueth and Perez were killed by electrocution, two other men, Vizueth’s brother and a friend, were swept away by the current and are listed as missing, and the three remaining men were severely burned and spent another day in the water, burned and clinging to trees before they themselves were rescued.
For the record, my goal here isn’t to criticize these men. They and many others just like them have placed themselves at risk to help those who were stranded by the flood waters. During a natural disaster event such as this, the enormity of the situation is way too large to expect local, state, and emergency responders to respond to every event. And quite frankly, the altruistic response of this nature by everyday people is, in my opinion, one of the noblest traits of Americans. These men are truly heroes. But it is possible that a weekend’s worth of training could have allowed them to better evaluate the circumstances surrounding their rescue attempts.
Although assessing scene safety is the first thing that you should do upon entering a scene where you intend to render aid, that is not the only time during which you should be performing this assessment. Assessing scene safety should be an ongoing, deliberative process that changes just as frequently as conditions on scene change. Additionally, some of the other concepts that are taught in WRFA include the ongoing assessment of your group’s mental wellbeing, the individual skills and training of the members of the group, how well the group is equipped, as well as environmental conditions. A situation like these men faced is fluid and constantly in flux. Focusing on these changing conditions can be difficult depending on a person’s level of fatigue. The goal of teaching the skills and procedures in a WRFA class are to attempt, through repeated skills scenarios, to begin to allow the student to internalize, through repetition, approaching a situation in the same manner with the same thought process each time. Repetitive training aids in building “muscle memory” and helps to overcome fatigue, panic and normalcy bias. This is the reason paid responders constantly train. The same can be true for citizen responders. As the adage says, “You play as you train.” Train well and you will perform well. Train poorly and your performance will follow.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying that taking one class in WRFA or WFA will make you the perfect rescuer. Far from it. I actually recommend that people take the class multiple times from different providers. From experience, I would say that it takes the average student taking the class 2 to 3 times before they truly begin to remember and internalize all of the steps of a WRFA class. It is a very information dense class. But, by taking some form of training, you begin to grow your knowledge base and your skills. Recertifying allows you to hone those skills and reinforce that knowledge.
In closing, if you are one of those people that can envision yourself helping others, whether it is during a natural disaster or an auto accident, please get yourself some form of first aid training. While it is true that I do regularly offer these types of trainings, my goal here is not to sell seats in my next class. My goal is to convince those who are willing to render aid to gain the training necessary to do so safely. If not through one of my classes, then through one of the many other qualified providers out there. We are the true first responders.
And as I always say, “If you can’t always be safe, at least be well trained.”