Are You Ready for Small Emergencies?

I bet you have stories that support my belief that citizen leadership springs up in emergency situations. I’d be glad to read your comments or accounts of similar situations you’ve been in. My thesis here is based on a sample of two situations.

Situation One: On an afternoon last spring, Woody and I returned from our tree farm, driving on Oregon Highway 30, the highway that follows the Columbia River from Astoria on the Pacific Coast to Portland on the Willamette River.

A car in the oncoming lane stopped, signaling a left turn. The on-coming car behind plowed into her and sent her car spinning into our lane. Our truck certainly would have killed her. Woody took a hard right, praying that no one was coming down the entering road. Our truck slid across the entering road into a guard rail and avoided her. Fast thinking and a hard pull.

The next car on the entering road saw the danger. I watched him work hard to successfully stop before hitting me on our passenger side.

Meanwhile, the car behind the spinning car deployed all airbags, so you can guess how much power was in that initial hit.

The car of the woman who had hoped to turn left had no airbags. She was unconscious when Woody and another driver got to her side. Meanwhile, I called 911 and described the situation. Then, I stayed in the truck because too many people were already on the road.

The family in the third car in her lane was able to stop without hitting anyone. That driver and his wife immediately got out and began directing traffic. They knew how to command space and exude leadership. By the time the ambulance and police arrived they had a system going: two cars through going east, then two cars through going west.

All drivers on the highway and the entering road followed the directions of that couple. They had the skills, the presence of mind and the leadership qualities to maintain safety until the police and ambulance arrived.

We don’t know the long-range outcome for the left-turn driver, although she seemed to be conscious by the time the ambulance medics had her on a gurney. The second driver seemed dazed by his airbags and his disastrous financial future. All other drivers were safe because several people were alert, aware, skilled and willing to do what was necessary at the moment.

Afterward, I often asked myself if I could have played any of the necessary roles in that situation if others had not been there. Would I have been ready? Able? Or willing?

Situation two: After a recent wind storm, I had a chance to protect others in a lesser, but potentially dangerous situation. Driving toward our nearest arterial street, I discovered a wire looped in a large U across our residential street. I have a small car, but I knew that the sides of that U might easily catch on the side mirrors of a van.

I stopped and called 911. A man walking his dog, and other nearby residents tried with me to establish if the wire came from the telephone level or the electricity level of the nearby poles. Among the tree branches, no one could be certain of its do you know?

The emergency dispatcher said, “Assume it is electric.”

So, I stayed. Cars tried to turn off the arterial, and when I gestured for them to stop, they paid attention. When I pointed up and traced the U of the wires, the passengers saw and gestured at their drivers to stay on the arterial.

Cars behind me lined up, saw my gestures and then took turns to back up and turn around. Only one SUV drove past them and me, over the wires and on its merry and precarious way. Its left side narrowly missed the opportunity to tangle mirror with wire and pull wire down the road with them.

All other drivers waved a thanks and went another way.

Ten minutes later, the fire truck came down the arterial, siren and lights in full play, so I knew to get close to the intersection in time to keep them on the arterial. I pointed up, gestured the U shape and pointed them straight to the right. The passenger fireman did as the drivers had done, glanced where I pointed and gestured his driver to stay on the arterial.

They blocked the intersection with their fire truck. Then, they set about checking whether wire was telephone or electric, and whether it was touching the electric wire at any point. They found it was a telephone wire that was loose from several telephone poles (and many thick trees) away.

As I backed out of their way and went on to my morning meeting, they were still checking whether it was touching any electric wires. At the end of my day, I drove past a telephone pole with a large yellow emergency ribbon wrapping cut wire. All sat ready for the phone company repair.

What has impressed me in both of these situations is that one SUV was the exception to the rule that most drivers follow citizen leadership. I’m glad I had a second chance to witness this truth. I was ready, able and willing.

But the more impressive fact is that others cooperated to help reduce risks in the presence of potential danger.

Have you seen this dynamic in action? Let’s hear your stories.