What does scene safety really mean?

The way that we teach scene safety assumes that once we have 'assessed the scene for hazards' we are safe

By Kyle David Bates, MS, NREMT-P, CCEMT-P, FP-C

Remember that scene safety thingy that they taught us in class? You know the one I'm talking about — you did it when you first walked into your assessment testing station.

"Scene safety! BSI!" you exclaimed as you raised your forearms in the air as if you were a freshly scrubbed-in surgeon. The proctor would then reply, "The scene is safe," and you would commence with your assessment. However, have you ever really thought about that silly little phrase which is so often forgotten as quickly as it is uttered?

Scene safety, what does it mean? In essence, they want you to look for things like downed power lines, flaming vehicles, or some rabid raccoon that is high on meth. Now really, how many motor vehicle crashes do you find down power lines?

Seriously though, the way that we typically teach "scene safety" assumes that once we have "assessed the scene for hazards" we are safe. However this is far from the truth, especially when operating at the scene of a motor vehicle crash (MVC).

There is no scene that is more dynamic than that of the MVC. It can quickly change, even with the best scene control measures. The roadway is one of the most unpredictable, uncertain, and unforgivable environments that we work in.

We have a limited ability to control what occurs, encountering one of the most unpredictable elements ever: the human being. There are numerous reports and stories of cars driving around traffic incident management areas (TIMA) and nearly striking responders.

Even with the best TIMAs established, drivers have been known to breech traffic control measures as the result of distraction, ignorance, or arrogance.

It is for this reason that the concept of "scene safety" is inappropriate; we cannot afford to lower our awareness of the scene once we evaluate it. We need to move to a culture of situational awareness where we understand that the scenes are alive and ever evolving, with the ability to bring harm if there is even a momentary loss of concentration or judgment.

The only controllable and predictable factor is you. You control where and how you walk, where you place your bags or hands, and where you kneel. You need to be aware of what is around you, what can hurt you, and what can kill you. Unfortunately we do a poor job of teaching this in our classes.

It is imperative that as educators we stop saying, "The scene is safe," and require our students to actually decide for themselves if it is appropriate to approach. The learning should not end there — instead have the scene change part way through the scenario requiring them to: A) recognize the change and B) take the appropriate actions.

Now some may say that the difference between "scene safety" and "situational awareness" is semantics, to this I disagree. Where scene safety leaves off, situational awareness picks up. Situational awareness requires you to be aware of your surroundings 360 degrees around you, 100 percent of the time.

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  2. Safety

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