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Introduction to Accident Scene Safety

An accident scene can be a hectic place with a lot of things going on at once. Accident scenes are often chaotic and difficult to secure with so many people coming and going. No two accident scenes are alike, but they share the same goal – everybody should get home safe and sound.

Incident Management is a term used to describe the process whereby a set of coordinated activities are initiated when an incident occurs on a road network, in order to minimise the direct and secondary effects of the incident, as well as to restore traffic to normal operating conditions.

Awareness is the key to safety at accident scenes. Knowing the hazards and how to work around them will ensure the safety of everyone. As first responders, it might seem obvious that police and traffic officers are in a unique position to help accident victims deal with the impact of their ordeal, to help restore a sense of safety and control to an otherwise fearful and overwhelming situation. These officers can also make a big difference in how a subsequent criminal or other investigation is handled.

Many officers however feel uncomfortable dealing with accident scenes. In this section we would like to provide information and some guidelines to effective accident scene safety/ incident scene management.

Why do we need to secure accident scenes?

  • When an accident occurs the most important objectives are the safety of accident victims, emergency personnel and other road users. 
  • The first hour after an accident is called the Golden Hour – physicians say seriously injured car crash victims need to reach comprehensive medical care within 60 minutes to ensure a good chance of survival. At the accident scene, this scenario leaves about 12 minutes for rescuers to extricate the wounded and speed them toward the hospital. 
  • It is priority that the accident scene be secured and pre-warning of traffic takes place. This is undertaken with the patrol vehicles, blue rotating lights, headlamps and hazards etc. 
  • In some instances more than one pre-warning vehicle will be required with the officers kitted in their reflective jackets and the red flags used for motorist’s immediate attention. Sign trailers must be erected with the appropriate message displayed distance from the collision so that motorists adjust and reduce speeds timorously. 
  • Incident Management System is the process to efficiently manage road accidents and to restore traffic flow to normal as quickly as possible. IMS is also used to establish an agreed set of formalised alternative routes to use in the event of a road closure. 
  • In the event of heavy motor vehicles having been stacked, and a route diversion initiated for light vehicles, restoration to the flow of heavy motor vehicles will be given propriety when lanes become available. 
  • We need to prevent material evidence from being removed or relocated in any way. This is especially true if the accident is a fatal injury that might trigger an accident investigation. 
  • Learning from past accidents can prevent accidents from happening again.
  • Persons having direct authority must preserve and mark for identification, materials, tools or equipment necessary to the proper investigation of an accident, so it's important that material evidence does not "walk off" the scene. 
  • Sensitive, competent handling of victims in the immediate aftermath of the accident can have a tremendous impact on both the victim’s subsequent psychological recovery and on law enforcement efforts to solve the case.

Basic Steps in Accident Scene Safety

  • Size-up and assess the scene from all angles – Take notice of the layout of the accident scene and how it may affect your ability to deal with the scene safely. 
  • Look at the flow of traffic at the scene. Does it pose a danger to you or others, including the casualty? 
  • If so, can the traffic flow be safely controlled by bystanders or should it be stopped altogether? 
  • Before you stop the traffic, consider the effects this will have on emergency vehicles trying to get to the scene. 
  • If people are available, get someone up road and down road to wave down traffic. This is especially important in tight turns where they may not have time to stop after seeing the accident site. 
  • If the accident occurred at night, turn on hazard lights and ignite flares to warn oncoming motorists of the danger.
  • Think about the positioning of any vehicles involved in the incident and what possible risks they may pose (such as rolling forwards / backwards etc). Think safety - continuously re-assess the safety of the scene, particularly if relying on others to keep you safe. 
  • Turn off all vehicles involved in the crash. There is no way to know the kind of damage the cars have sustained and if there is any kind of puncture in the gas tank, the slightest spark from the engine could ignite a fire, thus increasing the danger posed to passengers, drivers and passers-by. 
  • Take care to note any hazards or additional damage away from the initial approach. 
  • People and vehicles will slip on hazardous material spills such as petrol, oil, brake fluid etc. If ambulance personnel slip on oil while carrying the victim, it could be fatal. Either clean it off the road or indicate to everyone where it is. 
  • Establish a few people around the immediate accident scene to help direct traffic, to point out fluid spills, and to warn people who may want to light up.
  • Control access to the scene - Keep foot traffic through the scene to a minimum. Allow only necessary personnel into the perimeter. 
  • Do not allow more people than is necessary into the crime scene. They can leave hair fibres, clothing fibres, footprints or other deposits that can interfere with any evidence at the scene. 
  • People who smoke tend to light up under stress. Ask these people to either extinguish their smokes or move away from the flammable materials and/or bikes. It is easy to forget something obvious like this in a stressful situation like an accident scene. 
  • Do not adjust or modify the scene (Exception: Removal of victims) of a vehicle accident
  • The first priority is to assess the condition of all patients. Be aware that patients may have been ejected from the vehicle. 
  • Stabilize the vehicle - trapped victims are in direct contact with the vehicle structure, so the substructure must be blocked and supported so there's no movement during rescue operations. 
  • Check for injured persons and perform first aid, if necessary, within the limits of your training and experience. Arrange for medical assistance. 
  • Never move an injured person unless you absolutely have to for their own safety or to perform CPR. They could have broken bones or internal injuries that could be made worse from movement. \
  • Never go near an accident scene or try to help a victim if there are downed power lines. You could risk your life doing so. 
  • Never touch blood with your bare hands and risk transferring disease.


[ Also view “Safeguarding Accident Scenes”]

Accident Scene Safety and Accident Investigation

  • A prime objective of accident investigation is prevention. By finding the causes of an accident and taking steps to control or eliminate them, we can prevent similar accidents. 
  • Investigators are aware that effective accident investigation means fact-finding, not fault-finding.
  • Information on events before, during, and after the accident must be collected. 
  • Facts and events preceding an accident explain why and how the accident happened.
  • Investigators can determine accident conditions by examining physical evidence, interviewing witnesses and securing the accident scene.
  • Once the injured have been attended to and the threat of further damage is eliminated, the accident scene must be secured and witnesses identified. 
  • The area should be secured until the initial investigation is completed 
  • Gathering facts will be easier if the accident scene is not altered. 
  • It is expected from emergency crews, if possible, to leave material where they found it. 
  • They should only move and remove what is absolutely necessary – this will reduce guesswork for investigators. 
  • The best would be to physically isolate the area by locking up or fencing in. This allows investigators to go back to the scene and assess what may have been missed or overlooked.


Accident Scenes and Journalists

Every day journalists and public safety officials cross paths and bump heads in the course of doing their jobs. This relationship can be heated, stressful and frustrating. Both groups are simply doing their jobs with hearts racing and heads pounding. In the case of public safety officials, they are often confronted with the prospect of saving lives. Journalists are representing the public and feel they have a right of access to accident scenes. Reducing conflict at the accident scene should be everyone’s goal and we would like to provide a few practical guidelines:

  • Police, fire and EMS officials work to protect the safety and well being of the public. 
  • These officials and journalists need to be sensitive to the needs and duties of the other.
  • Public safety officials should recognize that authorized news media should be allowed access necessary to properly witness and document emergency scenes in a safe manner, even when the general public has been denied access. 
  • All media representatives should clearly identify themselves as media representatives 
  • News media have the responsibility and the right under normal circumstances to photograph and report events, which transpire, on public property.
  • Public safety officials should not restrict news photographers from taking of pictures solely because the officer may disagree with the nature of the pictures - Editors determine which photos; footage or information will run.
  • Members of the news media may not restrict, obstruct or oppose a police, traffic or fire officer in the lawful execution of his or her duty. 
  • Recognizing that police, traffic and fire officials have duties to perform under the law, it is understood that denial of access to accident scenes is sometimes necessary to an investigation because of accident scene processing or collection of evidence. 
  • Due to reasons of public safety, sometimes police, traffic and fire officials must deny access to scenes

Driving near Accidents

An accident scene is an important driver distraction. Many accidents occur next to accidents scenes where motorists are not attentive to the road ahead and only focused on the emergency activities at the scene.

The following advice is provided to motorists driving near accident scenes:

  • Slow down when you see an accident scene – and if necessary –Stop!
  • Look for changes in the traffic pattern around the accident 
  • Look for personnel directing traffic 
  • Stop when directed to stop and do so immediately.  Do not keep coasting slowly. 
  • Proceed through the scene slowly when directed to do so 
  • Look for signs indicating what you should do 
  • Watch out for emergency services personnel walking around the scene 
  • Watch out for emergency vehicles arriving and departing the scene 
  • Do not stare at the accident scene or flashing lights while your vehicle is in motion 
  • Do not honk your horn. Rest assured, it will not get you through any faster!
  • Do not make sudden movements 
  • Do not assume anything.  Do only as directed by the police or officials directing traffic 
  • Do not disregard the directions of the personnel directing traffic


Also view the following sections:

 

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