Friday, February 20, 2009


Last night I finished a seven-week course that trained me to know what to do in the event of a disaster. It was a pretty good course, called "CERT", which stands for Community Emergency Response Team. It was put together by the Los Angeles Fire Department, and you can check out their webpage for more information.

Last night we had our final "graduation" exercise. We went to a local junior high school and there was a large room with people pretending to be hurt in the aftermath of an middle-sized earthquake. The others in my class and I (about 30 of us), were to size up the situation and figure out how best to respond. Me and a good friend of mine who took the class with me were assigned to be on fire suppression duty by the "incident commander". We circled the building and checked for fires or structural damage, and also shut off the gas and electricity (not really, though) to keep fires from starting.

Afterward, we were assigned to go inside the building where people were laying around, crying and sobbing and screaming. Some were walking around asking for help either for themselves or for somebody else. There were some mothers hysterically wandering around looking for their children. Even though it was an exercise and nobody was really hurt, the environment with all the noise and confusion was pretty darn realistic and had the effect of making you second-guess everything you did.

My wingman and I wandered through the room looking for people to help and tried to assess who was most injured. We had been taught that you should assess the room first, get those who can walk out the door, and then go from person to person figuring out what was wrong with them and assessing the extent of their injuries. Each person in the room had a tag pinned to their shirt that indicated if they were injured, their breathing pattern (fast or slow, a sign of shock), their radial pulse, and their responsiveness to verbal commands. Using this, we were to figure out what to do with them.

As we were moving through the room, lo and behold we found a good friend of ours (whom I didn't know would be there) lying on the ground. He "had" a compound fracture in his leg and told us that he couldn't feel either of his legs. Right as my wingman and I were trying to stabilize him, the course instructor came in and said there was an ongoing aftershock and the building was now moderately damaged. What should we do? Save ourselves, of course! My wingman and I ("Never, ever leave your wingman.") made for the door, leaving our good friend behind.

Now, this sounds heartless. We moved out mostly because we had been told to as part of the class. In hindsight, I felt terrible about it, and in reality, I most definitely would not have left my good friend behind, but would have dragged his sorry butt out the door with me. My class instructor, however, said that leaving him behind was exactly what we should have done because if we hadn't, we could have added ourselves to the list of injured people.

As it were, we "found" the building still standing, and my wingman and I went in and hauled him out. (Incidentally, I also discovered that I have the strength to haul somebody bigger than me to their feet ... who knew?!) All was well. Interestingly, we later found out that in the course of the night he had been left lying on the floor three times before we finally carried him out.

Was that bad? You bet, but in the midst of a real emergency, the rescuers can only do the best they can. The whole experience was a really good one and made me think. We can take classes like this (and I recommend all of You, My Loyal Readers, do, all two of you!) to help us know what to do in these kinds of situations, but when you get right down to it, training is only as good as the level-headedness you keep in the midst of such an event. Sobering as it is, simply saving yourself is okay if that is all you can do.

He is my friend, though, and I know in real life I most likely would have tried to save him and may have died trying. Curious, though, how even though I did the "right" thing in the exercise by leaving him the first time, that little bit of guilt still sticks in the back of my head. Had it been real, would I have been able to leave him if it were the wiser thing to do? And if so, would I be able to deal with the "survivors guilt" if he didn't make it? Tough questions.

Would you have left him behind?

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