Lakewood OH

CERT Part 2 : Verbal Valium and valiant action

North Olmsted fire Lt. Ken Hehnen demonstrates emergency equipment during his CERT presentation. (West Life photo by Sue Botos)

Verbal Valium and valiant action


By Sue Botos

I always thought the hero in a movie or TV show ran into the burning building without a thought about their own safety.

During Part 2 of our CERT training session, we learned that to be a real hero it takes a cool head and reasonable, rational preparation.

“You know those old Godzilla movies where everyone runs away screaming? That’s not how it is,” noted Mike Johnson, R.N., a paramedic and disaster coordinator at St. John Medical Center. Johnson, along with North Olmsted fire Lt. Ken Hehnen, presented units covering disaster psychology plus light search and rescue.

As the first people responding to an emergency, CERT members might see and hear some unpleasant things, Johnson told us, and coping mechanisms like “black humor,” while offensive to “outsiders,” are often a good way to blow off steam.

“Get out of your bubble and talk to people,” he advised. “The team is essential to your well-being,” he stressed. This “buddy system” was demonstrated later during a “triangulation” exercise, during which four class members, with the room darkened, spread out over the search area while keeping contact with flashlights.

Johnson also noted that while victims may welcome emergency personnel with open arms, after a while they will start to project their frustrations onto the very people who are trying to help them. “Who are we the meanest to? The people closest to us. People just want to vent,” said Johnson, adding with a laugh, “I have three daughters and a wife, so I’m usually the target.”

Although most, if not all of us, in class were there to learn how to lend a hand during a disaster, Johnson emphasized that responders’ mental well-being should not be neglected. “If you don’t get rest and take care of yourself, you become a problem, not help,” he stated, adding that everyone carries around a mental suitcase. “Because we can handle it (a situation), we throw it in the suitcase and carry it with us most of the time. Pretty soon, it becomes full.”

“Tell people directly what you are going to do. Explain the procedure and tell them what to expect, and give people as much information as you can,” he said. He continued that giving survivors a task can serve as “verbal valium.”  “When you’re at your worst and you feel like no one cares, that’s the worst feeling,” Johnson said.

When Hehnen rolled in his gurney and backboard from his ambulance, we knew it was time for some hands-on work. But first, he told us about the three major components to search and rescue: size-up, interior and exterior search, and rescue operations.

Using the example of the Florida sinkhole, which swallowed a homeowner in his sleep, Hehnen said a situation has to be evaluated before rescue workers can spring into action. The stability of the building, the number of people suspected to be inside and any downed power lines or gas leaks need to be considered first.

“The No. 1 hazard is electrical wires, No. 2 is natural gas and No. 3 is cuts and falls,” he noted. He added that any time you can encourage someone to safely move out of a dangerous situation on their own, that’s the best strategy.

“Analyze the risk, don’t just dive in,” he said.

This calm, rational, approach it especially difficult when the victim is a child, and Hehnen said he sometimes has to “rein in” his firefighters in these situations. “Everything hypes up, but you still have to remember the priorities,” he stated.

“This is a lot different than you see on TV,” I commented to Hehnen during a break. He agreed, adding that materials used in furniture, carpeting and building supplies are a bigger threat than smoke. “Now more people get overcome from chemicals than smoke.” He added that newer buildings collapse faster than older construction. “We used to stay in a burning building for about 20 minutes. Now they can go down in five to seven minutes,” Hehnen said. He added that once a building is vacated, external firefighting and preventing the spread to neighbors’ homes is more important than saving a structure.

While our hands-on portion did not include a ride in Hehnen’s emergency vehicle (no playing with the lights today), we did get to try a “blanket lift,” with a group of us successfully hoisting “victim” Laura Thomas. “Victim” Brianne Tompkins reported that being tipped back in the “chair lift” was “disorienting.”

It was interesting that Hehnen called CERT teams one of his better resources. He noted that police are trained not to allow their weapons to get in a compromising position and that doctors and nurses many times are used to depending on equipment. CERT is best on the scene.” A CERT-trained nurse is the best,” he added.

NEXT: Disater medical operations



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