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Avoid the instinct to help

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By Mark Robinson
Monday, April 28, 2014, 11:17 AM

Standing in the midst of mangled buildings with an unknown and chaotic situation unfolding makes you feel totally helpless and there’s a powerful drive to jump in and try to help. But, you can easily make a situation worse if you don’t know what you’re doing and sometimes standing aside and doing nothing is the best help you can give.

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I have been through many disaster situations in hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes, and blizzards. I have seen lives uprooted and neighbourhoods blended together in a kind of mass destruction that leaves one wondering how anyone could possibly have survived. Standing in the ruins of what was once a town always leaves me with a sick, empty feeling. The crux of the matter is whether or not I actually can do something for the people. Am I qualified to help out or am I just going to be in the way?

The issue of helping out has always seemed to be simple for stormchasers, but it’s not always been that way. Most chasers consider the chase finished when they come across tornado damage, especially if there’s a chance that people have been injured or are trapped.

That’s how it should be, but is it the right course of action? All the chasers that I know would drop everything to help out, but our actions may actually jeopardize the rescue efforts of the authorities. Being in the right place (or in the case of a tornado, the wrong place) at the right time may ensure that you can do something to help out. In that case, rendering aid in the form of helping people to a hospital or directing police and fire to injured people in need of aid is the best course of action.

This may sound counter intuitive, but helping someone out of the debris may not always be the best thing to do. First aid is critical in these situations and part of that is knowing when and when not to help. For instance, if someone is trapped underneath debris and is unconscious moving them may cause permanent injury if the person has a spinal injury. Being able to identify a victim and their potential injuries is critical if you are first on the scene. This is where training becomes all important.

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In 2011, a massive tornado smashed through the city of Joplin, MI, and two friends of mine, Jason Persoff and Robert Balogh were directly behind it. As they drove down the highway following the tornado, they came across a number of 18-wheelers rolled over into the ditches and they immediately stopped to render aid. They were well qualified to help out as both are ER doctors and are extremely experienced. The injuries to the truckers were minor, but serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. What they didn’t realize was that one of the two hospitals in Joplin had been truck directly by the monster EF-5 tornado.

Jason and Robert arrived at the hospital and immediately went into full doctor mode. They were pressed into service treating patients as they arrived at the hospital as well as preparing and helping move patients already at the damaged building over to the other hospital. Given Robert and Jason’s experience and qualifications, they were well suited to giving aid to the victims of the storm and they likely saved many lives that night. When I talked to them a few days later, the stories that I heard were horrible and uplifting in equal measure.

These two doctors were well suited to help out in the aftermath of a tornado, but even they had to eventually step aside and let others take over. This is a question for all chasers. When do you step back and let the authorities take over? I have been in the aftermath of a number of tornadoes and many hurricanes. So far, I have been very lucky. I am trained in first aid, but I’ve never had to use it. Yet. I do expect that I eventually will have to help out someone who has been injured by the storm, but so far I haven’t needed to use it. So far the best way for me to help out has been to step back and let those that know what they’re doing take over.

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How do I know when to step back?

Simple. When I’m in over my head. I’ve been very careful to not interfere with on-going search and rescue operations other than to bring cold drinks or move something if I was directed to by someone in charge. Reporting on the situation and asking for help in a given area was also something I could do, but I have to admit that it never felt like I was doing enough.

If you think that you may end up in a disaster scenario, the best thing you can do to prepare is to get trained. Something as easy as getting basic first aid is a major first step. There are a number of training programs that you have get involved in, including St. John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross. There are a number of programs that you can choose from once you begin your training as well. Even if you don’t expect to be in a disaster area, having a solid first aid background is well worth it.

You can also get further, advanced training in first aid and even in search and rescue techniques. However, most people will never find themselves directly in a disaster area and yet still want to help. In this case, donations to charities such as the Red Cross and other well established organizations are the best way to help. Sending food and clothes isn’t always useful as many times, the area is far too chaotic to be able to receive or distribute such aid.

Disasters are inevitable, especially in areas such as ‘Tornado Alley’ and as a chaser, I’ve been through a lot. Helping out in such a situation is critical, but knowing when to help and when to step back is even more critical. Getting training is the best way to know how to deal with a given situation.

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