6 Things Not to Do in an Emergency
From putting butter on burns to calling 9-1-1 from your home phone in a fire, the wrong move could make things worse
In 2006, a New Jersey firefighter called 9-1-1 from inside his burning house as he tried to extinguish the blaze with a coffee pot full of water. His fiancé and future father-in-law escaped, but the firefighter died of smoke inhalation and third-degree burns.
“Although it is difficult to leave one’s own burning home and possessions during a fire, firefighters must practice what they preach: Get out and stay out,” noted a 2007 investigation by the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety.
In an emergency, the action that feels right, whether it’s staying to battle a fire or jumping into a lake to rescue a drowning swimmer, can be dangerously wrong. Here are six actions to avoid in a crisis, and what to do instead.
1. If your smoke detectors go off: Don’t call 9-1-1 from inside your home.
Instead: Leave the house immediately, then call 9-1-1 from your cell phone or a neighbor’s phone. You may have just seconds to safely evacuate your house or apartment. Heat, smoke and low oxygen levels can be more deadly than the flames themselves, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Asphyxiation kills three times more people than flames in home fires, according to the U.S. government’s safety campaign ready.gov. Don’t linger to try to put out the fire, either. Follow your fire escape plan.
2. If an accident victim may have a head, neck or back injury: Don’t try to move him.
Instead: Call 9-1-1 and try to keep the victim calm, quiet and still by putting your hands on either side of his head to immobilize it, the Red Cross recommends. How do you know if he may have a spinal cord injury? According to The American Red Cross and American Heart Association, he might if he:
- has been in a car accident or fallen from something higher than standing height
- feels tingling in his arms or legs
- has pain or visible injuries to the neck or back
- has numbness or muscle weakness in the upper body or torso
Movement could make a spinal cord injury worse. That said, it’s OK to carefully move an accident victim if he is in an unsafe place (such as the middle of the road) or if he’s face down and unresponsive.
3. If you or someone else suffers a burn: Don’t apply ice, butter or petroleum jelly.
Instead: Soak minor burns in cool water for 5 to 15 minutes to dissipate heat and discourage swelling, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends. Don’t pop blisters — the exposed skin could become infected. Apply antibiotic cream or aloe vera lotion and cover with a clean, dry, nonstick bandage. Get emergency help immediately for large or deep burns, electrical and chemical burns and for burns on your face, hands, feet or genitals, the AAFP suggests.
4. If a child or adult may have swallowed a poison: Don’t give them water, milk, activated charcoal or syrup of ipecac on your own.
Instead: Call 9-1-1 right away if a suspected poisoning victim is unconscious, having convulsions or has difficulty breathing. Otherwise, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers hotline at 1 (800) 222-1222 immediately. Hotline staff will ask for the victim’s age and weight and what and how much he ingested. A poison expert may recommend giving him something to neutralize the specific toxin, but don’t try it on your own. While ipecac syrup was used in the past to induce vomiting, there’s no evidence it reduces the effects of poisoning, and it can cause harm, including making it difficult to keep down medications doctors may give someone after they’ve ingested a poison, according to the National Capital Poison Center. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends families keep a little brown bottle of syrup of ipecac on hand. Same goes for activated charcoal — emergency room personnel may give it to some poisoning victims, but it’s not recommended for home use.
5. If someone is drowning in a deep pool, lake, ocean or other body of water: Don’t attempt a swimming rescue unless you’re trained.
Instead: Shout for a lifeguard. If no trained help is available, stay on dry land (or on the dock, float or in the boat) and extend a pole, towel, shirt, paddle or branch to the victim. Or throw a flotation device attached to a rope past them, then pull it toward them. Once the victim grabs the object, slowly draw them to safety, being careful not to let them pull you into the water. “Do not attempt to rescue a drowning person while in the water yourself unless you are trained to do so and have lifesaving equipment,” the American College of Emergency Physicians recommends. “People who are drowning may panic and pull you underwater with them; dangerous circumstances — such as strong currents or rip tides — may also endanger you.”
6. If someone is choking and coughing: Don’t do the Heimlich maneuver.
Instead: Encourage him to keep on coughing to try to dislodge the food or whatever is stuck in his throat. Don’t try to reach in and remove it. If someone is choking and still able to cough, they’re still getting oxygen, so they don’t need the Heimlich maneuver.
However, if the person can’t cough, speak, cry or breathe, it’s time to act fast. The Red Cross recommends supporting the victim in a bent-over position with an arm around his waist or chest; give him five firm blows between the shoulder blades with the heel of your palm. If the food or other object is still lodged in his throat, stand behind him and wrap your arms around his waist. Make a fist with one hand and place it, thumb side down, just above his navel. Wrap your other hand around your fist. Give five abdominal thrusts, pulling sharply upward and inward each time. Repeat both steps until the object is forced out or the person can breathe.
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