How to be Helpful while Volunteering.

A lot of my volunteering experience was solo and done at my own expense and desire. While it is always risky putting yourself in danger to help others, there is a rewarding feeling you get when you are able to help someone who is having a very bad day.  So long as you know what you are doing.

There are always safety precautions one should take if they desire to be helpful. Especially on the roads, safety is important. You do not want to become another victim. Ensuring any scene is secured and safe should be primary, the only thing that would be more important then securing a scene, would be tending to someone who was critically injured or dealing with any serious risks to peoples lives at the scene (i.e. putting out a car fire).

There are also many different types of scenes and ways in which you can help. I will examine various scenarios here in this post.

Stranded Motorist

Stopping on a highway or roadway to help a stranded motorists can always be very dangerous. On a highway, you should always pull right off of the road. As far to the right as possible. I would usually stop about 3 or 4 car lengths behind the stranded car (that gives me enough room to exit the shoulder, back onto the active lanes, safely if I don’t need to stay). This is where some rear warning lights are important. Obviously if you are just stopping to check to see if everyone is alright, you may not need to stay for long, so Deploying road flares and other warning devices may not be needed. Vehicle warning lights will serve as your primary warning device to other vehicles on the highway.

While hazard lights do work, they do not command the same respect as alternating or flashing third party lights. People see hazard lights all the time and generally will not take much notice of them, where as flashing lights will generally cause people to slow down a little to see what is going on. So long as they are not blinding or overly distracting, this will generally improve your safety and the safety of the people you are stopping to assist.

I usually made note of the make and model of the vehicle and the license plate before getting out to check if they are ok. This information is useful to note down before you make any contact.

I always approached a stranded car carefully. It is advisable to approach from the passenger side, so you are away from the traffic. Always carry a flashlight so you can view inside the vehicle. You may be introducing yourself to a dangerous scene, as the occupant might be unstable, suicidal or intoxicated. They may think you are a cop and try to attack you, or drive off. This is why you should always say that you are a volunteer, and your just wondering if they are alright. That should be the first thing you say.

Often people will just need a tow truck to be called for them, and I will gladly call one. Sometimes people need some gas, so I will bring them to a gas station so they can grab a jerry can of gas. Unless I am in a rush to get somewhere important, like work, I will generally sit behind them and wait until their tow truck comes. This not only comforts people, but it protects them, with the added flashing lights. If I can not stay with a vehicle, I will often light some road flares for them, and give them a few extra. I have found that following completely through on assisting people, to the extent of driving them to a hotel if their from out of town, can actually be quite rewarding in many ways. People will often insist on giving you a tip for helping them. It is up to you if you accept them or not of course. :)

You will eventually come across people who are impaired or they have other issues, such as being suicidal. It is important to contact the police and request their assistance ASAP if this happens. If you can, get their keys from them. Being alone with someone on the highway might be extremely unpredictable. I once had a drunk woman who offered to ‘service’ me if i didn’t call the police. I took her keys and told her to wait in her car while I called the police. It is also recommended for times like this that you have some sort of video recording system. People can claim any number of things while you are alone with them. People are vendictive, and like to create stories. I always ran a dash cam when I stopped for a stranded motorist. Luckily I never had to use any of the recordings.

I am sure some people out there would rather be serviced by a drunk female on the side of the road. However what would you do if they drove away and caused an accident? I don’t think I could live with that. There is also the possibility that she could claim you raped her… Again, it is important to have some sort of dash cam running, and keep the occupants in view of it when you are talking with them. Do not let them come back to your car.

The only time I would let stranded motorists into my car, is when it is very cold out, in that case, the microphone in the car will still pick up the conversation, so, there is no real worry. If you wanted to get fancy you could have an in car cam as well.

Highway Accident / Live Lane stranded car

If you come across an accident or stranded vehicle on a live lane on a highway, you will need to act quickly. Live lanes are extremely dangerous. Visibility is important. Stopping in such a position as to be visible as far down the road as possible, is essential. For the first few minutes your car (and the lights on it) will have to provide the protection for the scene.

In heavy traffic, usually you can safely stop in the live lanes. The traffic will be weaving through the scene slow enough to consider it safe. However on long open stretches of highway with minimal traffic, you are at the most risk. I will generally pull my vehicle far off on the shoulder, grab a few road flares and pop a couple up on the live lane, before even attending to any victims. If there is a car stopped in the live lane, it is important to get everyone out of the vehicle if they are able to move. A car in a live lane is as dangerous as a car that is on fire.

If they are NOT able to get out of the car, I would likely move my vehicle onto the live lane with as many lights on as possible. Honestly, I would rather a car hit my vehicle, then hitting a vehicle with already injured people in it. I mean if someone is going to crash into the scene, they are gonna crash into the scene. It is less likely they will hit something with lights all over it, then a wrecked car with no lights on it.
While legally, you would be at fault, I would be willing to risk that for the added bit of safety it would provide for those critical moments when you are waiting for the emergency services to arrive.

If someone is that critically injured, then you will need to focus on basic life support. Keep them consicence and keep them stable. Movement may injure them more. During this time you will not have any way to set up any protection for the scene. You will have to rely on your initial road flares and your lights on your vehicle to protect you and the victims (this is why lights are very important). If there are other people there, they should be well off the roadway, unless you need someone to assist with first aid.

For situations like this I like to have Red to the rear of my vehicle to get people to slow down a LOT or stop. People generally will not slow down as much for Amber as they will for Red. Legalities aside, it may save your life and the lives of others.

If everyone is alright, then you will likely not need to stop in a live lane. Move everyone to the shoulder and off of the highway. Then you can bring out some road flares and/or traffic cones (as long as they are reflective) and start to secure the scene. Generally I will use road flares are a first line of defense. Placing them close to the scene (assuming there is no gas leaking from cars), in a line across the lanes affected.
Then I will start to place traffic cones starting as far away from the scene as possible and along the right shoulder.

NEVER try to direct traffic on a highway by standing in a live lane and waving your arms or anything. People do not expect pedestrians to be standing on a highway. Traffic cones and flares are replaceable if they get hit. Humans are not. If you have pylons and flares deployed, you CAN stand behind them and wave a flashlight to help slow people down. But never put yourself ahead of any type of scene protection.

A straight and proper placement of traffic cones is very important. Traffic cones placed haphazardly in random places tend to confuse drivers and may lead to further issues. I usually followed the rule of placing one cone, every 10 meters on highways with speeds of 100 km/h (usually 1 meter placement distance, per every 10km). You want the lanes to merge into each other gradually, allowing time for people to merge safely as a safe speed. Sometimes on a multi-lane closure, traffic cones can extend for a good 500 ft ahead of the scene (why it is good to carry many cones – if you do this often enough). Your cones should all line up if you look down along them.

When placing cones it is important to work from the shoulder outwards. This way the already placed traffic cones provide some ‘protection’ for you while you place new ones. At night it is advisable to place a few highway flares along the stretch of cones as well.

Once the scene is secured, you should ensure the victims are all staying safely off the roadway, and watching for any other threats to the scene. When the first emergency crew arrives, you should always greet them and brief them on any injuries or situations. More then likely you will be asked to maintain the lane or road closure until the scene clears (as you have already secured the scene, for them to kick you out and re-secure the scene would mean time wasted for them).

This is why it is important to carry flares and traffic cones. In the end, if you are doing this properly, you will be helping the emergency services.

Scene Senses and Staying out of the way.

To be aware is to be smart. Scenes can present many dangers which you may not notice right away. These dangers range from gas leaks, explosions and fires, to exposed high voltage wires from a severed streetlight, or a downed power line. And of course the ever present danger of other vehicles crashing into the scene.

You must always be aware of your surroundings. Letting your attention drop for just a few seconds could cost you your life. Expect the unexpected and be wary of every approaching vehicle. Watch where you are walking! I once saw a emergency worker trip over some exposed high voltage wires, from where a street lamp had been completely severed from its footing in the ground (the street lamp landed about 160 ft away). It was night, and it was hard to notice the wires laying there so close to the ground. Luckily the guy didn’t get hit with any high voltage, however it did create quite a show of sparks.

As for staying out of the way, I will generally just stick to ensuring the scene is secured once emergency crews arrive, unless they directly ask for my help. Letting them do their job without bothering them is critical.

As for arriving at scenes where there is already one emergency vehicle, I will often walk up and quickly identify myself, and ask if they want me to toss a few flares or traffic cones up to protect the scene (or need any other help). Usually they will say sure, and off I go to do my thing.

Being aware of what is going on at the scene is important. If the tow truck is hooking the vehicles up and getting ready to move them, then you should be getting ready to pick up your cones. Ideally once the tow truck drives off the scene with the wrecked car, you should be seconds away from having all of your cones off of the road, assuming the scene is clear of all vehicles (emergency vehicles included). You should not have to be told by the officer to pick up your traffic cones. Obviously if the lanes are clear of all vehicles and debris, the lanes can be opened. If you are unsure if the officer or any other emergency personnel are aware that you are about to open the lanes, then you should yell to them and motion that you are opening the lanes. If they want them to remain closed, they will tell you, however it usually will show your scene sense to read their thoughts to an extent and clear the scene as fast as possible (as usually that is their prime directive on accidents, unless they are fatals or near fatals).

Road Closures / Long Term work

Several scenes I have been at have become long term closures (8+ hours). This usually happens when it is a fatal. If you commit to a scene, you commit to a scene. You can not just pick up and leave… you are there. Often police will offer you coffee or food while on scene for that long.

My volunteer group mainly responded to long term closures. We did road closures for fatals and structure fires. Depending on your local police and fire departments, fatal crash investigations and structure fires can take anywhere from an hour to 10 or more hours. Some departments will document a lot of the scene, and/or wait until the early morning hours to get a corner to remove the body. During which time the road remains fully closed.

Generally for such road closures you need a bit more equipment. You generally do not want to be standing outside directing traffic the whole time, so you will need signs to identify that the road is closed. I used to carry a full sized (4ft by 8ft) wooden Road Closed sign. Such a sign combined with traffic cones and your vehicle across the road behind the closure, will usually stop and re-direct most people without you needing to get out of your car.

If you are standing outside, and looking bored, EVERY car will stop to ask you what happened, and how to get around. If you stay inside your car or generally far enough away from the active part of the roadway, you will generally be able to avoid cars stopping to talk to you. It is better that they move on and find their own way.

The only thing you really have to be aware of is people who try to ignore your cones and signs and drive around you. You should be ready to jump out and stop them. Otherwise, a full closure (sometimes with the aid of road flares if your local PD is willing to give you some free ones to burn) should be visible enough for most people to figure out that they have to find another route.

Closures should always happen at an intersection. It is possible that you may have people who will approach you claiming to live in the stretch of road between you and the accident scene. You should try to verify this, before letting them through, and warn them to approach carefully, and not drive through the scene.

Either way, if the police employ you to tend a closure, you are technically under their command and responsibility. Maintain professional standards and be respectful towards anyone you deal with. Often tending a road closure for a fatal, you will have to deal with family members who arrive at the scene. This can be very hard to deal with at times, and often there will be a police officer on scene who is trained to deal with emotional trama. Usually I will direct these people to speak with the police. I will not disclose any information I may or may not know about.

Of course I would not recommend trying this, unless you already are fairly well known by the local PD. If they trust you, they will have no problems letting you run a road closure alone. But if you arrive on scene, and they don’t know you, they will likely tell you to scram. This happens, and it is a sign that the authorities are not familiar with you yet. To get recognized takes a lot of work, and you have to always be super helpful. Starting out assisting people who are stranded is often a good way to get known.

Road closures and such, takes a lot of equipment, as I stated before. This is why I was considering an ambulance. Other useful items that can help the emergency services, is a generator and flood lights, a inflatable boat (for water rescues), winches chains and ropes, kitty litter ( for absorbing gasoline and oil spills – standard stock on most fire trucks, however sometimes they will need more then one or two bags ), and coffee! Having a coffee maker, and paper cups can really win you some friends in the emergency services. Some departments have canteen trucks (operated by volunteers) which will provide refreshments and food for long incidents. But many do not, so acting as a canteen truck to provide coffee, or water / pop to the emergency services will often get you accepted at every scene.

Traffic Direction and Intersections

Often a full closure is not needed, but cars do need to be directed around a scene. Usually this will involve using a single lane for both directions and alternating the traffic flow. To do this obviously you will need 2 people, one at each end of the scene, and a way to communicate.

Often if you are alone, a Police Officer or pedestrian will often help you out. Give them an extra reflective vest to wear and flashlight if they do not have one. Reflective vests are very important! Do not walk around on any scene without one.

Knowing how to stop and signal traffic takes some training. I would not recommend doing this unless you have been trained.

Other situations could happen during a blackout when the traffic lights of a major intersection go dark. Often, in low traffic areas, I will simply just pop up road flares on all 4 corners of the intersection, and also at the center of the road. This usually works fairly well, and people will usually come to a complete stop or slow down at least when passing through the intersection. There is no need to stand and direct traffic in a low traffic situation.

In a high volume situation, you will need to direct traffic. Multi-lane traffic will not be able to figure out who has right of way very easily. Often I will park my car in a visible spot with the lights going to notify cars approaching from a distance that there is a problem. And wearing my bright reflective jacket, I will stand in the middle of the road, with a flashlight, and direct traffic. It is VERY important to be fully clear with your directions. You can not be lazy and give half ass’ed arm movements to signal what someone should do. Directing traffic you become liable for any accidents you cause.

Using BOTH arms raised high with your palm towards traffic should signal them to stop. Never assume someone is going to stop until they actually do stop. I feel that pointing at the car you want to direct helps sometimes as well. Often to start traffic moving, I will point at the cars I wish to start moving, and then point in the direction I want them to go. All other traffic should stay stopped until you point at them and tell them where to go.

Sometimes intersections will have a high volume of people who want to turn left. In this case, I will often stop all traffic and allow the left turn lanes a chance to turn left every few cycles. (or every cycle if its very busy). Doing a large intersection can be very stressful and busy. You have to be alert at all times. Again, once you commit yourself, you commit yourself for the duration.

Summary

Basically what I described above is the job of what in the US is termed as a ‘Fire Police’ officer. I don’t know if I want to be called a Fire Police… I prefer volunteer, because I am doing it out of my good heart to help and be of service. I hate confrontation and do not really want anything to do with having any authority.

Whatever you do or call yourself, always be professional.

4 Comments

  1. Interestingly enough, I did end up becoming a registered NYS Fire Police officer for a while, and the training course basically covered everything in this post. A few things in the course which I didn’t really stress were that, if a car is still movable / drivable after an accident, then move it off the live lane!

  2. Very helpful for a newbie, like me. I completed my classroom and field training. Having the demeanor of a police officer is also important, in my humble opinoin. I heard a story about a Fire Police officer, showing up at a scene, pulling out his lawn chair, lighting up a cigar and directing traffic from his chair. OMG, giving all of us a poor perception in the public’s eye.

    • I agree that acting professional is key while on scene. But it doesn’t hurt to enjoy yourself behind the scenes. I remember when my team used to wait for calls, we used to do some crazy things like play bumper cars in a big parking lot, or sit around outside a coffee shop smoking big fat cuban cigars. But when on the scene, it was always important to get the job done right. (That being said there was more then once when I was responding to a call, with a cigar in one hand, a coffee in the other, and meanwhile trying to drive and talk on the radio… not really the safest idea out there, but hey, we’re all humans and make mistakes and such – luckily I always made it to calls safely however).

      Since I wrote that article, I myself have also taken an official New York State Fire Police course, and I can say that all of my previous training and common sense foundations, seemed to be duplicated in the official course.

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