You are here: Home > Complete Preparedness Library > First Aid And Medical Basics > First Aid - What to Know Before You Help

First Aid - What to Know Before You Help

There is never a substitute for formal training in life saving skills, but even if you are completely untrained there is still much you can do to aid a victim. If a sudden accident or serious illness happens, at the minimum, you should know safe practices for yourself and others, how to obtain information and when it’s time to call 911.

Understand the following areas:
1. Universal Precautions: Bloodborne pathogens (such as HIV and Hepatitis) can be spread through blood or body fluids. Those who respond to an injured person need to be aware of the potential, even if this is a close friend or family member. Hepatitis C, in particular, can be present in a person’s blood without symptoms – but is still highly contagious.

Always protect yourself by wearing the proper personal protective equipment. Wear gloves to touch an injured person. When you discard those gloves, peel them back half-way, turning each inside out as you take them off. Follow with washing your hands thoroughly, for at least two minutes, scrubbing vigorously with soap and water.

If any exposed part of your body comes in contact with the victim’s blood or body fluids, scrub the area as above. If water isn’t available immediately, (such as at a car accident) use alcohol wipes from your first aid kit to clean the area. Then scrub with soap and water as soon as you can. If you have an exposure, designated by contact with body fluids to your skin, eyes, or mucus membranes, see a physician immediately after the incident. Some bloodborne pathogens (like Hepatitis B) can be prevented, even post exposure- with simple and prompt vaccine treatment.
Having a spare pair of gloves and a face shield (for CPR) easily accessible- in briefcase or desk at work and glove compartment-will greatly improve your ability to respond quickly and safely to injured individuals.
2. Ask for Consent: It’s both ethical and legally required to ask a conscious victim if you can aid them. Many victims are confused and frightened. Swooping down on someone injured, especially if they are a stranger, can be especially terrifying for the victim. Ask the injured if you can offer assistance. Tell them your name and your level of any first aid training. If you don’t have any training, it’s still OK to help. Even an untrained person can give much comfort or some common sense help.
Keeping a dialogue going can help injured persons from going into shock as well. If possible, obtain the victim’s name, nature of injuries, inquire what happened and if they have any other medical conditions or are taking medication. Emergency responders may need this information from you if the victim loses consciousness before they arrive.
If the victim won’t permit you to offer aid, (they may be too disorientated, agitated and distressed to understand) – call 911. Likewise, call 911 if victims are unconscious and you can’t obtain consent, and report their injuries. If you have to give first aid or CPR, to someone who is unconscious, it’s usually termed, “implied consent”. Still, talk to the unconscious person. Many people, who were later revived, remember those around them speaking. Your words to an injured person can bring comfort, even if it appears they can’t hear you.
3. Personal Safety: In the rescue business, people often remark one of the goals is, “No dead heroes”. This means, you, as the first one on the scene, must watch for your own safety.
Whatever injured the victim may still present a hazard to your own wellbeing.
Look for oncoming traffic, electrical hazards like downed power lines or frayed cords, smell or sight of chemicals, presence of flammables or fire, and broken glass. The first rescue procedure is to step back and assess the situation, both for your victim’s safety and yours. In some settings, like confined spaces where victims become entrapped or overcome in small areas, a high percentage of fatalities are the rescuers and first responders.
Don’t ever offer aid if you are in jeopardy yourself. Either remove the hazard (i.e. throwing an electrical breaker) or call 911 immediately if you can’t safety aid the victim. Be safe. Be aware. No dead heroes. Your ultimate goal is to keep the person alive or to offer aid until help arrives. It may not be to perform a rescue, though sometimes those are one and the same (such as pulling a drowning person from water and giving CPR). But only do so when your own life isn’t in danger.
4. Signs and Symptoms: Even without formal lifesaving training, you can practice being observant. Almost all injuries or illnesses will present with signs and symptoms. A “sign” is what you can visually see or notice. Bleeding, wounds, pale clammy skin or rapid breathing are various visual indications that give a clue to what their injury is. How the person is feeling are their “symptoms”. They may be having chest pain, dizziness, or vision changes. This is why talking to the injured person is so critical. Ask the victim how they feel and to tell you if their condition changes. Report all signs and symptoms if you have to call emergency authorities.
5. Make the Call: Know when to call 911. Some casualties (like electrical burns or fall injuries) might appear minor, when in reality extensive internal damage can be present. 911 dispatchers are trained to help you monitor the victim and if necessary, can coach you through basic first aid or CPR till help arrive.
You should always call 911 for the following:
  • Unconscious victims
  • Not breathing or difficulty breathing (shallow breaths, grey or blue pallor, irregular breathing)
  • Chest pain (especially crushing, persistent or reoccurring pain)
  • Stroke symptoms (remember the acronym-F.A.S.T. Look for Facial droopiness, Arm or leg weakness, Speech slurring, difficulty talking or comprehending, then it’s Time to call 911. – think F.A.S.T.)
  • Severely broken bones ( bones protruding or at odd angles)
  • Profuse bleeding (including nosebleeds that won’t stop)
  • Extremely intense or persistent pain (can signal a blood clot, especially accompanied with swelling, warmth or redness of an extremity)
  • Sudden vision loss or abrupt change in vision
  • Serous falls
  • Dizziness/Fainting/Seizures
  • Bloody vomit or bloody diarrhea
  • Car accident injuries (even if injuries appear mild)
  • Severe burns or large area of body burned
  • Any electrical burns (these can cause widespread tissue damage internally, even if only a small wound is visible)
  • Open head wounds, serious head injuries or excruciating headache
  • Gunshot wounds/Stabbing
  • Drug overdoses, accidental poisoning or toxic chemical exposure

This isn’t an extensive list; many other serious emergencies can present themselves. If you are ever in doubt, call 911. If you have to report an injury or illness involving chemical exposure or poisoning try to have the product information (bottle, container or package insert or material safety data sheet) when you call 911 or when the rescuers arrive.

In almost all cases, unless the victim isn’t breathing and you need to do CPR, it’s better to not move injured persons. The one exception to this is if their lives are in grave peril staying where they are. A November 2009 incident in Kosciusko County, Indiana is one such example. The driver of a pickup truck was pulled from his vehicle by a passerby when the cab burst into flames. Otherwise, due to spinal cord injury potential, you should never move the victim if no immediate life or death threat exists.

If you begin aiding a victim, it’s important to stay with them until you are relieved by EMT’s or other emergency workers.

Regardless of the situation, stay calm. Sometimes, the very best first aid is simply calling for trained help and offering comfort to the victim till qualified assistance arrives. However, being equipped with an adequate first aid kit, including blanket, ice packs and various treatment options, is extremely beneficial and could be lifesaving due to the time saved and the quality of the items. It’s a lot easier to help someone when you have the proper supplies, a calm, collected demeanor and a bit of knowledge. Before a crisis occurs, take formal training in CPR or first aid so you are well prepared to aid those in need.