News | Published March 21, 2013 | Written by Leslie Snyder, paramedic

What to do when you’re in an emergency situation

In early November 2012, the East Coast of the United States braced for the approach of Hurricane Sandy, a powerful storm that threatened uncertain amounts of havoc. During the days leading up to Sandy’s arrival, what did you do to prepare? Did you gather non-perishable food, fill your bathtub with water, and dig out your flashlights, spare batteries and first aid supplies? Did you prepare at all? Or did you assume that, in the unlikely event of a true emergency, someone would be there to bail you out?

Unless you work in the emergency department or as a first responder, emergencies probably aren’t a part of your daily life, but you do experience them from time to time – whether you are prepared or unprepared. Though the types of emergencies can range – from accidents to medical issues to hazardous weather – you are likely familiar with the sensations that can accompany an emergency situation: your pulse races, you can hear your own heart pounding, your respirations increase and become shallow and maybe you start to sweat or shake.

Emergency personnel are trained to think of emergencies as routine and have learned to control these physiological responses. Here are some suggestions of how to apply emergency training to your own life, should you find yourself in one:

  • Be prepared. Have a plan and practice for emergencies that could conceivably occur in your life including fires, medical problems and power outages. Gather items like important phone numbers and paperwork that could be useful in these situations and remain familiar with their placement. The American Red Cross has lists to help you prepare for particular disasters: Prepare Your Home and Family. Remember that no plan can address every potential situation, and you may need to be creative.
  • Be calm. Although the physiological responses frequently serve an important purpose, they tend to impair people’s ability to assess emergency situations. The calmer you remain in the tumult of an emergency, the better able you will be to think, assess and plan. Consciously slow your breathing and take a mental step back to see the situation from a better viewpoint.
  • Be in charge. Perhaps the most important thing you can do in an emergency is to “wear the white helmet.” On an emergency scene, such as a vehicle accident or a mass casualty, the individual in charge often wears a white helmet, making them easily identifiable. When you wear the white helmet, you assume command of and accountability for the situation, not only for others, but for yourself. Taking charge doesn’t mean knowing exactly what to do. Instead, it means being aware of your surroundings, the available resources and unfulfilled needs that must be met. Often, this means calling 911 to get the needed resources to the proper place.

Emergencies are often unexpected, scary and full of adrenaline. But your response to them can be controlled, especially if you are prepared to remain calm and take charge.

For more information on how to handle an emergency situation, visit