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Put Me In, Coach: Why Emergency Responders Are Good at Being in Emergencies

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NOAA and Coast Guard responders take water samples.

NOAA and Coast Guard responders take water samples after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Credit: NOAA.

While responding to a recent barge collision [leaves this blog], I heard a chilling story from one of the emergency responders—we’ll call him “John”—who nearly had his own collision driving to the command post that day.

John was in the middle lane of a crowded interstate highway when suddenly a wheelbarrow on its side appeared in his lane not far ahead. To the left and right, an uninterrupted line of cars and trucks continued to speed by at nearly 70 miles an hour; there was no safe way to stop or avoid the rapidly approaching wheelbarrow.

He started to brake, but not so quickly that he would be hit by the minivan following too closely behind him and create a pileup. His options were limited: depending on what he did, the wheelbarrow could be tossed spinning into the next lane of cars.

Fortunately, as he slowed his truck, he noticed that the wheelbarrow was positioned with the open top facing him. John chose to drive his truck’s right front tire into the open wheelbarrow, rolling up its sides like a ramp. Traveling around 15 miles per hour by then, the impact felt like hitting a speed bump. The partially crushed wheelbarrow became caught under the truck as John came to a controlled stop.

Traffic around him eventually slowed and stopped. What could have been a major accident had been avoided. John said, “It was just luck, plain luck, that the wheelbarrow had ended up like that.”

It was what John expressed next that really caught my attention: “I’m glad I was there.” Seeing puzzled looks, he added, “It could just have easily been a mom with two kids in a small car, or a different kind of vehicle than mine and that wheelbarrow would have been tossed into traffic, or they could have lost control spinning into speeding cars.” He was in a better position to minimize the overall threat to others on the highway.

What he said characterizes one of the reasons I love working with emergency responders so much.

Emergency responders, by nature of their vocation, are level-headed thinkers that do not panic during emergencies. While training and experience might build rapid assessment and decision-making skills, there is more to the attitude of a good emergency responder than that.

I believe it is much the same as that of a good baseball player, who wants to be there for the team during a game’s clutch situation. The hardest position for a good baseball player is usually sitting on the bench. Of course, in baseball, if you strike out, the game ends and it’s only a baseball game. In emergency response, failure can have much more deadly consequences to the public we protect.

I’ve spent most of my career working with emergency responders from a wide range of disciplines. I’ve noticed a few things about them.  They have confidence in their skills and are willing to make immediate hard decisions when needed. Emergency responders hate emergencies more than anyone, but when emergencies happen, they want to be “in the game,” while fully acknowledging the possible and serious consequences of their work.

Who are some of these emergency responders? The Coast Guard rescue swimmer willing to drop from a helicopter into a cold ocean to save a victim from a sunken fishing boat would be one example. A NOAA meteorologist at a Weather Forecast Office desk detecting the early signs of a tornado forming and quickly getting out a warning would be another.

The list is extensive, and perhaps, surprising: the NOAA HAZMAT chemist warning that adding water to a certain type of chemical fire on a cargo ship might actually lead to an explosion; the fireman directing the proper tactics to prevent a fire from spreading to an adjacent building not yet fully evacuated; the county emergency manager quickly recognizing a flashflood threat and coordinating the shutdown of threatened roadways.

You might not always think of some of these individuals as emergency responders, but they are. I’m often humbled seeing emergency responders work or hearing stories of their actions and insights, and I’m very proud to be their colleague.

After more than two decades, I recognize that I’m beginning to give up my team position to a member of a younger generation, and I try to pass on the wisdom that was passed to me by my mentors. I knew that I stood on that generation’s shoulders, and the next generation of responders will stand even taller. I’m excited because they are just like “John.”  You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice: Put me in, Coach. I’m ready.

Author: Charlie Henry

Charlie Henry currently serves as the Director for NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. The center’s mission is to establish an unprecedented regional presence and expand federal capacity to plan for and respond to all hazards. Henry has more than twenty-five years of environmental assessment and spill response experience beginning with the 1985 Arco Anchorage incident near Anacortes, Washington. Henry has extensive on-scene response experience including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1991 Kuwait oil fires, the 2000 Tanker Jessica oil spill in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, and the hundreds of oil and chemical spills in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast in 2005. During the more recent Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, Henry served as the lead NOAA scientific advisor to the Federal On-Scene Coordinator within Unified Command.

One thought on “Put Me In, Coach: Why Emergency Responders Are Good at Being in Emergencies

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing that insight. That was inspiring. 🙂

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