Onlookers gather around the scene of an accident. File photo: Leon Knipe

Johannesburg - Unless the driver involved has collided with an emergency response vehicle, the first responder at a crash scene is almost always going to be a member of the public.

And like Durban personal trainer Brian Dube, who grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the fire that started after local celeb Sbahle Mpisane wrote off her BMW in the early hours of last Thursday morning, they are often genuine life-savers - even if all they do is call for an ambulance or emergency assistance.

But crashes, especially big ones involving multiple injuries, also attract crowds of onlookers; that’s human nature. The problem is that people jostling to get an up-close view of the real-life drama get in the way of medical personnel trying to reach the scene to assist the casualties as quickly as possible.

'People didn’t want to move'

ER24 medic Justin Van Wyngaard described a recent four-car pile up in Alrode, south of Johannesburg, in which 15 people were injured and that attracted a large crowd, making it difficult for the medics to get to the patients who needed urgent medical help.

“It took me about five minutes to get from where I parked the ambulance to where the other paramedics were and where they needed us,” he said. "This takes precious time away from the patients who need our help right now.

“That’s usually what happens at big crash scenes,” he went on. “There are a lot of people and they aren’t always willing to move or make way.”

And people getting in the way doesn’t only hinder the medics getting to the patients, they now also have to worry about the safety of the public around them.

Don't add to the casualty list

“With dozens of bystanders standing close to us, we now have to worry about our patient, about ourselves and everybody standing around, especially at a road crash where traffic services haven’t yet closed the lanes to traffic. That’s why it’s best to move back and stand on the pavement or next to the road, and give us space to work.”

If you’re at a crash scene, he advised, always be aware of your surroundings. If you’re standing in the road, the next driver coming along may not see you in time to stop; then you’re no longer a spectator, you’re a casualty.

And when you hear the sirens approaching, move out of the way and give the paramedic room to park, work and walk freely.

Do's and don'ts 

Van Wyngaard paid tribute to Dube, and gave this advice to people who find themselves in a similar situation:

Never pull a casualty from a vehicle unless it's actively burning, and it is safe for you to reach the patient. Remember, your safety is the first priority.

Never turn an overturned vehicle back on its wheels while a patient is still inside; wait for fire and rescue services.

Don’t shake or pull on the vehicle or doors to try and free somebody. Wait for fire and rescue services to use proper equipment to free the patient.

Don’t make contact with body fluids such as blood, etc. Instead, ask the patient to apply pressure with their hand on a wound, if possible.

Alternatively, ensure you have gloves on before rendering any first aid; keep a pair of latex gloves (available at most pharmacies) in the glove compartment of your car.

Remember to wash your hands thoroughly before you return to your vehicle or home.

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