Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Emergency Response

Gina was shocked to learn why the previous occupants had moved out of their isolated rental house. It was because the wife had been raped there – and the rapist was still at large. To make matters worse, Gina’s husband often traveled for his work. Knowing that she might have to defend herself, she planned exactly how to do it. That included easy access to the butcher knife and thinking about what she would do with that knife.

Sure enough, within a few weeks someone tried to break in while her husband was away. Now was the time to act and she did – she got on the phone and called her sister who lived 40 miles away! She did not call 911. She did not grab the knife. She avoided being raped only because the assailant gave up before getting the door open.*

Don't laugh too hard. If you are human it is quite possible that you might make a similar mistake. We've had lost people with cell phones call their friends instead of 911. Then the friends have to find the right agency to call before a search can be started. Worse, without direct communication between the sheriff's office and the subject it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to get the information we need for a timely rescue.

Just last week a local sheriff’s office got a call from someone in California. The caller’s friend had gone snowboarding and was lost somewhere on the south side of Mount Hood. However nobody knew where the subject’s car was parked, or which ski area she had started from. Without that information it is difficult to search effectively. It was not possible to reach the subject’s cell phone for unknown reasons (maybe she turned it off to save the battery). We weren’t even completely sure we had a lost person. Fortunately she was eventually found. (That event, by the way, is my motivation for writing this column.)

I've also had neighbors come to me for first aid assistance before they call 911. I don't mind, I am highly trained in the skill. However I am not as highly trained as the ambulance or fire truck crews, nor do I have the equipment they do. Besides I'm not always home while those professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My neighbors would be better off to call 911.

The psychology behind that type of error illustrates an obstacle to sound decision-making, especially under stress. Our right brain often leads us to act without thinking (cf http://hallillywhite.blogspot.com/search?q=right+brain). The right brain provides great help in dealing with every-day situations but is terrible at handling new problems. In those cases we should always check it against the logical left brain.

Fortunately most of us seldom face real emergencies. However seldom does not mean never. Most of us will face a few urgent problems during our lives. It may be an intruder in our homes, a traffic accident, a serious wound from a kitchen knife, or something else. It may even be an excited young couple when their first child is about to arrive. How do we calm ourselves enough to take appropriate action rather than acting in a panic?

One way is to practice ahead of time. When my wife and I were expecting our first child we went to classes that not only taught us what to expect, but also allowed us to practice what we should do. We even practiced driving to the hospital. Of course it’s a bit more difficult to practice what to do in a home invasion or traffic accident but the good news is that practice in one type of emergency tends to help prepare for other, seemingly unrelated, emergencies. A good first aid course will teach, and allow you to practice, the technique of looking and thinking about scene safety before exposing yourself. If that is done with gory fake victims it can help prepare the mind to check with the left brain before acting in other situations. Professional responders practice all sorts of situations until the correct response comes naturally to them. Most of us don’t have the time to do that, but we can improve.

Had Gina practiced calling 911 (with the phone turned off) and grabbing her butcher knife she would have been more likely to act appropriately when the emergency actually happened.

Another good technique is to just practice slowing down and thinking in daily life when our right brain tells us we just must have or do something. Is it really urgent to eat that piece of pie or cake? Do we really need to hurry and tell our neighbor the latest news? Such practice will accustom the mind to checking in with both right and left brains.

Then of course when we do feel stress or think something is an emergency we can make every effort to see if what we are about to do is really the right course of action. That will help us make better decisions, both in everyday life and in emergencies.

If we can discipline ourselves to check our emotions with against our logic we will make better decisions, in times of stress and at other times. That will give us better lives.

*I heard this account from the woman involved. I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.

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