What to Do if You’re First on Scene of a Motor Vehicle Incident

Via Rhonda Callow, Gold River Volunteer Fire Department

What to do if you're first on scene of a motor vehicle incident

When you witness a motor vehicle incident (MVI) or arrive to one before first responders get there, your initial reaction may be to rush in and try to get people out of the vehicle as quickly as possible. Given that Gold River is a small community and there’s a very good chance that you could know the people involved in the crash, this reaction may be stronger than ever. Unfortunately, this is exactly what you shouldn’t do – doing so can put your life and the lives of others in danger.

If you arrive on scene of an MVI before first responders, here’s what you should do.

Pull Over Safely. This may seem obvious, but with a rush of adrenaline, your automatic reaction could be to leave your vehicle in the middle of the road in order to rush to the MVI as quickly as possible. This not only puts your safety at risk, it will also delay first responders from getting to the scene if your car is blocking their way. You should pull over far enough away from the crash that it gives other motorists enough time to react to the crash and make sure you are off the road and you turn your emergency hazard flashers on.

Take a Moment. With your adrenaline going, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and only see the crash and the people in the vehicle. You should take a moment to catch your breath before reacting to what you see, and do this whilst still in your car – this is where you are safest. Operating with tunnel vision is dangerous. You need to assess the dangers around YOU before you can do anything else. Are there downed power lines? Is there fire? Are there oncoming vehicles? Be sure to check your rear-view mirror before opening your car door!

Call 911. Unfortunately, we don’t have cell service so it isn’t easy to get on the phone to call 911 immediately after we come upon an MVI. You will need to flag another driver down and have them get to a landline to call 911. The person calling 911 should try to have as much information as possible when they call. How many kilometers from Gold River is the crash site? Use landmarks if you’re unsure of the distance (“Two minutes past the barber pole,” for example). How many vehicles were involved in the crash? Are there people trapped inside the vehicle(s)? Are there any hazards surrounding the crash site, like downed power lines or ruptured fuel tanks? First responders appreciate all the information they can get before arriving on-scene.

Calmly Approach the Scene. Victims of an MVI are going to be scared so try to maintain a sense of calm, even if you feel you’re anything but. If you’ve assessed the scene and there are no external threats or hazards, approach the vehicle and in a calm and composed voice tell the victim(s), “Stay still, do not move. Help is on the way. You’re going to be okay.” Talk to the victims even if they appear to be unconscious, they could still hear you and knowing that they are not alone can make a world of difference.

Do Not Move the Person. Do not perform any kind of first-aid or medical procedures if you are not trained to do so as this can cause more harm than good. It could be very tempting to want to pull someone from a vehicle, especially if they are showing signs of discomfort and pain, but it’s very important that you do not move them unless it’s a life-over-limb situation, like the vehicle is on fire.

Use Extreme Caution Around Undeployed Airbags. Although airbags are designed to save lives, they can be very dangerous if they fail to deploy during a crash. If you reach into a vehicle to turn the ignition off, use extreme caution. Should an unstable airbag deploy whilst you are in its path, it can cause serious injury or even death. Also note that it can take up to 30 minutes for an airbag system to deactivate, so even if the ignition is turned off or the battery has been disconnected, there is still a risk that the airbags could deploy.

DO NOT TRANSFER ANYONE. It could also be very tempting to transport a person to the clinic/hospital yourself. Unfortunately, we do see this happen in Gold River but please, DO NOT TAKE A VICTIM AWAY FROM THE SCENE. Continue to calmly talk to the people involved in the crash and assure them help is on the way, but no matter what, do not remove them from the scene. Even if the person has exited the vehicle on their own and appear to be okay, they could be in shock and have internal injuries that are not immediately apparent. For the safety and wellbeing of the victim, it is vital that you do not take them away from the crash site.

And speaking of leaving the crash site, make sure you stick around so you can provide the RCMP with a statement. Don’t leave the scene until an officer tells you it’s okay.

Take Care of Yourself. Witnessing an MVI or being first on scene can be traumatic, even if the crash was minor. Everyone reacts to emergency situations differently, and it’s important that you take care of yourself. If you can, go home and get some rest. It’s also extremely important that you talk to someone—be it a spouse, friend, or professional—about what you witnessed. And it’s okay to ask for help. If you’re finding it difficult to eat or sleep or you feel you’re constantly reliving the trauma—even if it’s weeks or months after the incident—please reach out for help and know that what you’re feeling is not uncommon and therefore, you’re not alone.

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3 comments to What to Do if You’re First on Scene of a Motor Vehicle Incident

  • Excellent advice. A couple of things I would add- Have someone control travel and manage the scene to keep everyone safe and, if possible, approach injured people from the direction they are facing to minimize their neck movements. Prevention is always better than cure, so please enjoy a safe holiday season this year!

  • Jan Normand

    Thank you for this advice. It is super important to know what to do if we witness an accident! It can compromise the health and life of a person involved in an accident even if they are in a upside down vehicle. Ems would put a neck collar on the person most times before they get them out, they are trained we are not. Even if you have had First Aid that does not apply in a motor vehicle accident. I witnessed an accident in front of my house once and one of the vehicles that an elderly lady was driving hit a tree. I ran out to see if she was alright and phoned 911 to get help. She wanted to undo her seat belt and get out but I wouldn’t let her cause I was thinking if she has internal injuries it could make things worse. Well I found out after she had to go to a hospital in Edmonton where she had to have part of her large intestine removed as it was damaged upon impact when she had the collision and hit the tree. Had I let her remove her seat belt like she wanted she could have bled out and possibly died. I am glad I listened to my gut instincts and just stayed with her until the EMS got there.

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