Sometimes in car accidents, the vehicles involved become so entangled and crushed that people inside need to be extricated in order to be saved. Firefighters use the “jaws of life” along with many other tools to get the patients free, and as a volunteer firefighter, I have helped to do this several times. I have also been a volunteer at a Victim Support Unit, and I think there are some interesting parallels that can be drawn between being extricated from a smashed up car and extricating ourselves from abusive situations or other times when we feel trapped.

The first thing we do as firefighters when we arrive on a scene is size up the situation. We deploy signs to tell motorists that there is an emergency scene ahead. As we drive up, we assess the number and type of vehicles involved — the 9-1-1 calls are not always accurate — and immediately radio for additional resources if we can tell we will need more firefighters or ambulances on the scene. The next two people out of the truck do inner and outer surveys of the scene, looking for victims and checking for hazards that will affect the extrication. Everyone else gets the tools ready.

Similarly, you will need to size up your situation. If you are in an abusive relationship, you will need to have a very good plan in place and you’ll need some other resources to leave safely. Contact your local police department, victim support unit or women’s centre so they can help you make a safety plan. There are a great deal of hazards in leaving an abuser, so do not take them lightly. If you are in an unbearable job situation — that is, you feel like you can’t leave but know you must — or considering another major life change, you may also need the support of family and friends. Do some research before changing careers or seek out a career counselor. Size up your money situation so you are clear on your expenses versus desired income. Make a plan for when/how you will leave, apply for other jobs or enroll in training courses. When making any major life change, planning always helps.

The next thing firefighters do is stabilize the vehicle the person is trapped in. This involves putting blocks under it, or using straps or jacks to make sure it won’t shift while we do our work. Similarly, you can take steps to stabilize your situation before you begin the actual extrication — save up some extra money if you can, think carefully about the best time to leave, and do anything else you can to prepare. You may want to talk to your doctor if you think your health might be affected by this big change.

Now, we get to work.

The firefighter in charge will decide the best course of action to remove the vehicle from around the person. Then, as a team, we get the tools we need to implement that plan and start breaking glass, cutting, prying or bending metal. A firefighter or paramedic will usually get into the vehicle with the injured person and talk them through what is going on and reassure them that they will be out soon. The rest of us use the jaws of life, reciprocating saws, hydraulic, pneumatic and even hand tools to cut the vehicle so that the person can be removed as carefully and quickly as possible. We never rush this step (moving the person) unless it becomes a “life over limb” situation, such as the vehicle has caught fire or the person’s condition is deteriorating to critical.

If your situation is serious, such as a violent, abusive relationship, you will not be able to extricate yourself, but you can call the right people to help you. They will know the steps to take. If you are not in any physical danger, such as the person who is changing jobs, then the next step is just do it! Take a deep breath and carry out your plan. Believe that it will all work out for the best!

Usually, once the trapped person is free, they are loaded into an ambulance and the medics take over. When you are extricated from your nasty situation, realize that you might need some “first aid” too. You might want to get some counseling. Be kind to yourself if you can tell you aren’t coping very well. Don’t make any other changes for a while and use stress management techniques — get enough sleep, drink enough water and eat fresh foods. Big changes take time to adjust to, so don’t expect it to be over instantly, especially if you’ve “been injured.”

Lastly, forgive yourself for letting yourself get into the situation. Like an MVA, it was an accident. You didn’t mean for this to happen, but it did. Forgive yourself and the whole situation for being what it was — that will help you let go and move on more than any other “action” you can take.

So, next time you are in a traffic jam wondering why all the traffic is stopped, remember, it could be a group of firefighters saving someone’s life up ahead. Rather than be annoyed, be grateful that we have people dedicated to the fire service. (In the US and Canada, 70% – 80% of firefighters are volunteer.)

Featured photo credit: In to the fire, a Firefighter searches for possible survivors via Shutterstock and inline photo by Tom Bech via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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