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Public Bystander 101: What to Do in an Emergency

Life will always remain unpredictable; no matter how we might try to manage or plan what happens around us, some things are simply outside of our control. At some point in your life, you may witness an emergency in a public setting. This could include a variety of things, from a minor slip and fall to larger, more dangerous situations.

If you were put into or witnessed an emergency right now, would you know what to do? How would you feel? Do you feel confident that you could remain calm? Preparation is key to having the peace of mind that you’re ready to handle any situation that might come your way. Here are some tips and insights that can help you build your confidence as a public bystander:

The Role of First Responders

It’s important to remember that as a public bystander, you are not expected to act as a professional first responder—nor should you, unless you have the proper training and certification. In any emergency, it is important that you prioritize calling for help via 911 or another response hotline. Do not attempt to offer services, medical or otherwise, that you are not qualified to provide. In most cases, first responders can arrive on scene within a number of minutes to help any victims. If they are unable to quickly reach your location, the individual on the phone will be trained to walk you through any actions that need to happen in the meantime.

How to Reduce Bystander Fear

It’s totally normal to feel a sense of nervousness or panic in an emergency situation. In fact, the “bystander effect” is a studied phenomenon in which people are less likely to help others when there are crowds nearby. Of course, it is always important to ensure your own safety first—you can’t help someone else if you are hurt. However, if you are able to help, here are some ways to help you get over your fear:

  • Take a moment to briefly pause, collect your thoughts and think through what you know about responding to emergency situations.
  • Remind yourself that everyone deserves help, regardless of their situation. It’s easy to judge someone who doesn’t reflect our own community or relationships, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive help.
  • Focus on doing one thing at a time. For example, instead of panicking and trying to handle the entire situation, take one meaningful action. This could include calling first responders or simply asking if someone needs help. Once you have taken a smaller action, it’s easier to move to the next task

Remember that it’s totally natural to feel nervous. If your fear is getting in the way of your ability to help, consider getting the attention of another bystander and letting them know someone needs help.

Active Bystander Tips: What to Do in an Emergency

When you see an emergency happen, here are the three basic steps you need to keep in mind:

  1. Call first responders (911) for help: this should always be the first action you take. If you do not have a personal device available, try to get the attention of someone who does.
  2. Collect information about the emergency: it’s likely that an emergency operator will ask you for information about the scene. Plan to give details like your address, what is happening, who is hurt or other relevant information. If needed, ask someone to record the events on their phone should the authorities need visuals from the event.
  3. Remain calm and only do what you can: like mentioned earlier, no one expects you to perform emergency services. Focus your attention on calming the scene by being an example. Help those around you who may be nervous by breathing deeply with them and reminding them that help is on the way. Speak with the victim and calmly ask how you can help.

Remember, never engage in a scene if it will compromise your own safety. The University of Cambridge recommends always staying in groups to reduce the potential for more harm.

Training for Public Bystanders

If you are interested in gaining more public bystander or first aid training, there are a lot of programs that offer these services to individuals or large groups. For example, TacMed Solutions recently backed the “Stop the Bleed” program, where experts guide untrained bystanders with a willingness to help through various first aid and responder lessons. These programs are a great way to continue to build that confidence through preparation—because everyone deserves help, and you just might be the one who can give it!

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