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Posted on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

First on the scene of a serious crash? Here's what you should do

By Rich Kinsey

In the beginning, things are chaotic at the scene of a serious crash. There will be injuries, there may be blood and there will be danger. What should you do if you are the first one on the scene?


Pittsfield Township firefighters work on clearing a car destroyed in a head-on collision on Michigan Avenue last week. Two people suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the crash.

Courtesy of Pittsfield Township Department of Public Safety

First and foremost you have to think of your own safety. Park your car well off the roadway. That is very obvious, but it is really important for your safety.

You must park far enough away to give other drivers time to react before getting to the crash. Always turn on your emergency flashers. You must also be far enough away that if there is an explosion you and your car will not be involved.

Once safely parked, take a few moments to gather yourself. If you have witnessed a serious crash, your body will be dealing with an adrenaline dump. I have witnessed two very serious crashes, and I can tell you from experience that when you actually see a bad crash your heart rate immediately doubles.

While walking a beat, I witnessed an elderly man get hit by a van when he was crossing the street at Main and Liberty. I had to take a deep breath or two before I broadcast on the police radio so I did not sound like a Munchkin on helium.

Taking those few extra moments, to collect yourself, before acting will make you much more effective. If you have a cellphone, call 911. Tell the dispatcher where you are and what you can see.

The dispatcher will ask a number of questions starting with, “Is anyone injured?” At this point you hopefully have not even been out of your car—remember you are safest in your car, on the shoulder of the road with your seatbelt on and your head against the headrest. Observe and report what you can see.

The key is getting emergency responders heading to the scene. If you do not know if there are injuries, say so, but tell the dispatcher how serious the crash looks. When in doubt, assume there are injuries.

If you later find there are no injuries — that’s fine — call 911 and give them an update. Emergency vehicles can always slow their response and shut down their emergency equipment in route, but the key is to get professional help there as soon as possible.

Once you have reported, it is time to take another deep breath and get determined. Look around see what kind of secondary threats there are. Are you off the road far enough and have you left room for emergency vehicles to respond? Is there a fire? Are there electrical wires down in the area? What is oncoming traffic doing—check your mirror before you open your door.

Remember, your job is to hold down the scene until the professionals get there. If it is safe, make your approach, but keep looking for things that are immediately life threatening — like fire or ruptured fuel tanks.

Next look for injured victims and know your own first aid capabilities. Do not attempt any first aid or medical procedures beyond your training. If you have not had a first aid or CPR class, you can at least check on the victims and let them know that help is on the way.

In the calmest, lowest, slowest voice you can muster, talk to the victim and tell them not to move. Tell them, “Help is on the way, you are going to be all right. Stay still, do not move, help is coming.” I suggest you even verbalize this to unconscious victims; it cannot hurt and you never know what victims are processing. Scared, injured, terrified victims are comforted just knowing they are not alone and help is on the way.

Do not try to move any crash victims unless there is a greater life-threatening hazard, like fire, that necessitates you moving that person.

You may be seeing some terrible things, but it is critical that you do not react emotionally to what you see. If you are calm, conscious victims will naturally calm. If you are terrified and repulsed and show it, you could potentially put a person into shock.

Screaming victims are reacting to pain and terror. That is not always a terrible thing. It means they are conscious and probably reacting to pain, which means there may be little neurological damage. Time to talk to them, keep them still and give them a “job.”

Calm the person by asking if there is anyone else in the vehicle. If not, start asking them their name and tell them you can see they are injured but they must remain still. I have found that people who are yelling react better to requests for information and calm talk then from yelling at them, “CALM DOWN!”

Walking wounded, drunks and drugged people also will be a problem. Get them somewhere safe, get them to sit down and tell them not to move. Remember some head injuries will cause a person to walk around in a daze and they can easily walk out into traffic — so get these people down, safe and still.

After you have surveyed the scene for injured persons and emergency personnel are not yet on the scene, it would be a good time to fire up the cellphone and call 911 again. Update the dispatcher, so they can update rescuers and get more assets headed to the scene if necessary.

If the crash is not serious, try to get the vehicles moved off the roadway. You can tell the drivers to get their licenses, registrations and proof of insurance handy for the police who are on their way. If one of the drivers reacts by driving away, try to get a plate number vehicle and description, and then give that information to the police.

Finally, after you have given your information to the police and have been released from the scene, take care of yourself. If the crash was serious, you have been involved in a traumatic event yourself.

Realize that you have done an honorable thing. Give yourself a pat on the back — preferably not while you are driving — and then take care of yourself. Rest, relax, eat, hydrate and avoid alcohol.

Everyone reacts differently to trauma, but if you are having trouble sleeping, eating or thinking about this incident this is not uncommon. If the effects persist you might consider speaking to a crisis counselor. Even cops, firefighters and paramedics have to do this from time to time.

Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.

Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for


Francyn Chomic

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 2:08 p.m.

Rich, I am trying to find the article you posted several months about about merging and right of way. When was it or what was the title?

Francyn Chomic

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 2:26 p.m.

Nevermind. Found it.


Sun, Apr 7, 2013 : 6:55 p.m.

I wanted to comment on this article, because it really helped me figure out what to do when I witnessed a terrible car accident today. A car was t-boned right in front of me. From the article, I remembered the first thing was to stay in the car, but on my emergency lights, call 911 and turn off my car before running to the scene. Thankfully there were a few people helping and one of them was a nurse. I never thought I'd witness a car accident so close, but I'm glad I read this article, because I was definitely (and possibly currently) in shock at what I witnessed.


Sun, Mar 31, 2013 : 3:48 p.m.

This one's worth passing around to as many people as possible.


Sun, Mar 31, 2013 : 3:12 a.m.

All that kept coming to mind was the Keystone cops and the midget cars. Article is great for those who have no clue when arriving upon the scene of an accident. Otherwise, been there done that. No biggie.

John Campbell

Fri, Mar 29, 2013 : 3:35 p.m.

Excellent article. Thank you to Rich for taking the time to be so clear and informative.

Are you serious?

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 9:43 p.m.

Assuming there is time to do it one might pull out the cellphone camera and take a picture of license plates just in case someone decides to drive off.

John Hritz

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 8:19 p.m.

Thanks for a terrific essay. It really puts training and people's desire to help in a context where they can be both effective and safe.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

Good article Rich! Yep, step one; take your own pulse. Count the occupants, then scan the surroundings about 100 feet away! The force of impact can throw someone as far as 100 feet. That was sage advise taught to me by Mr. John Fontana (of Fontana/taylor Ambulance Co.). Like you-been there, done that.


Thu, Apr 4, 2013 : 1 p.m.

tf049------agree----always scan the surroundings-----unfortunately my nephew was in an accident and thrown approximately 100 feet at night---no one saw him and he laid there for over an hour----he was alive when they found him, but died en route to the hospital----I always wondered if he could have made it if found sooner.

Kyle Mattson

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 4:44 p.m.

I've been a witness and one of the first on scene to two serious accidents.The first was heading SB down I-275 in Livonia at midnight a few years back. It was early spring and despite the mostly dry pavement I guess there were some rogue icy patches. A Grand Am merging onto the freeway from Six Mile hit one of these patches and spun out directly into the middle of the mostly empty freeway about 1/4 mile in front of me. Unfortunately, it was directly in front of a young female driver in an early 2000's Explorer, she subsequently slammed on her brakes and turned her wheel. Doing so at such a high speed immediately flipped the Explorer sending it tumbling down the freeway. She violently rolled at least 3 full times until sliding another 50 yards on her roof and coming to a stop in the middle of the freeway leaving debris everywhere (the Grand Am drove off). I parked to her right and the next vehicle behind me was a semi who then parked on an angle blocking off the left two lanes. As I exited my car it started to set in that I could be walking up on a seriously injured person. To my amazement, the second that I walked around to the driver's side I see the woman on her hands and knees crawling out without a single scratch on her. She had an expected look of shock as I helped her up, she began shaking so I walked her over to my car where my friend who was with me at the time had just gotten off the phone with 911. She gave the girl a hug, sat her down on the back of my truck and tried to calm her down (and check for any other injuries). The woman kept asking about her purse and coat so I went and located both in her car while she called her parents on my cell phone. By the time emergency crews arrived she had calmed down and the semi driver had cleared most of the debris from the left lane allowing some traffic through. To this day I'll never forget the sight and sound of her SUV flipping flipping sending sparks, metal, and glass everywhere.

Linda Peck

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 4:39 p.m.

Excellent article, again, Rich. It is hard to read, but very informative, and a lot of detail.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 2:39 p.m.

I completely agree. The one thing I would add to his list is just more detail about the end of the situation. When you have been on scene for something like this, try to not be alone. I worked as a lifeguard and had to go in to make a save of a handicapped child one day. I reacted to the situation, did everything I was trained to do, then had issues. The young lady was ok, but was I? It took close to 45 minutes for my heart rate to drop and for me to calm down. Had I been alone at that time, instead of at a crowded pool I might have been in trouble from the crash of adrenalin levels dropping. Remember shock doesn't just affect those who suffer the injuries in an accident. Shock can affect people who witness and accident, and those who assist as well. In many ways this shock is worse than that of an accident victim because is is still very unexpected. Sadly, I did have a friend in college who nearly died of shock after coming upon an accident. She was driving down a dark rural road and witnessed a car go off the road and hit a tree. She did everything right with her reaction, and may have saved a teenagers life with her quick thinking. As the EMS services were leaving the scene (the accident victim had been airlifted) she collapsed from shock. Luckily the EMS workers saw he go down and immediately returned to help her. It saved her life because she went into a full cardiac arrest on the spot. Had Advanced Life Support EMS worked not seen what had happened she very well could have died that evening.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 2:37 p.m.

Everyone (I mean *everyone*) should have a fire extinguisher in their car. When I came upon a rollover scene a few months ago, there was a victim trapped in a smoking car, surrounded by a crowd and no one had given the smoke a second thought. When I mentioned it, no one had a fire extinguisher (including the owners of the home in whose yard we were). When the police showed up they didn't have a fire extinguisher, either (in spite of the gigantic chevy tahoe). Fortunately we didn't have to watch the poor guy burn to death, but I immediately went out and got three decent sized automotive fire extinguishers (and mounted them securely).


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 11:31 p.m.

We have fire extinguishers on each floor of our house. The one on the first floor is in the kitchen. We also have a (smaller) fire extinguisher in the trunk of each car. About two years ago I bought new ones. Fire extinguishers need to be serviced or replaced every 10 years. When replacing the three extinguishers we had then, I bought new ones for us and others for gifts. Many places sell them. I happened to buy our replacement fire extinguishers at Meijers.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 2:30 p.m.

The don't move part is so important. Several years ago, my husband and I had a rollover happen right in front of us. The woman and child in the SUV were not wearing seatbelts. We stopped and called 911 immediately, and then went to the car. As I'm telling the woman and girl not to move, other cars were now stopping as well, and this guy decided started ordering everyone out of the SUV because it could explode. Even though I said it wasn't going to explode and that the people in the SUV weren't wearing seatbelts and could have spinal injuries, he "took charge" and pulled the 7 year old from the wreck. As it was a cold and snowy day (and she also wasn't wearing a jacket) we went to sit in my car while waiting for the emergency responders. It was about 5 minutes later that the little girl said her neck and back were really hurting. I did my best to keep her calm but I told her she had to sit as still as she possibly could and that I was going to go get her mom and the paramedics. I don't know the outcome, but they took her away strapped to a backboard. She should never have been moved, and to this day, I wish I'd somehow managed to shut the idiot up and keep the mom and girl where they had been.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:39 p.m.

(cue theme from "Dragnet".....) another 4-star column, Rich! Hello, publishers..............................;) are you listening?


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:33 p.m.

Wonderful, this should be expected of all citizens. Not drive by and taking videos of the crash scene, as has recently been reported

Dr. Fate

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:23 p.m.

Rich's always good advice reminds me of the first two rules of CPR Club: Rule 1: When entering a resuscitation situation, the first thing you should do is check your own pulse, as in take a breath and think. Rule 2: Don't use the paddles as ear warmers.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:41 p.m.

(sound of crickets opposed to laughter.......)

Chester Drawers

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:58 p.m.

Your first piece of advice is so true. I was once driving in rain and fog on the extremely curvy Pennsylvania Turnpike. I came upon a semi pulled onto the shoulder with emergency flares all over the place. I had no idea what was going on but immediately slowed way down. Went around another curve and came upon a horrible accident which had both lanes blocked. That trucker saved me and a lot of other drivers that day.

Jack Gladney

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:34 p.m.

"...sound like a Munchkin on helium." That is a highly offensive description, especially to little people such as myself. I think you should say, "sound like an Alvin and the Chipmunks 33 rpm record played at 78 rpm." I just don't understand why in this day and age it remains OK to denigrate little people.


Fri, Mar 29, 2013 : 3:05 p.m.

Jeez, Jack, lighten up, you'll live longer....hopefully this is PC enough for the censors.....


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 9:06 p.m.

You sound so authentically offended that most readers have found it difficult realize that you are really being sarcastic. Good joke!


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

Can't be too politically correct these days, I suppose?


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

Munchkins are the inhabitants of the city in the Wizard of Oz. The term was coined by L. Frank Baum. They have high voices. Imagining them on helium gets the point across. His comparison has nothing to do with "little people" and the way they speak.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1 p.m.

I don't think Rich was trying to offend anyone......very good article.....especially when these type of crashes are happening more frequently......


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 10:44 a.m.

Thanks for writing such an excellent article. It never occurred to me to give an injured person a "job" to help them calm down. Your article gives a lot of insight and I appreciate that.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 10:22 a.m.

Thanks for article Rich. Good practical information once again from you.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 10:19 a.m.

I was always told to also turn off the engines of cars involved. This reduces the chance of a running motor catching leaking gas on fire-your input?

Rich Kinsey

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 11:20 a.m.

Thanks Pat.That is a good idea if you can safely do so.....Rich