October 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

The Gawker Reflex

As some of you have probably heard by now, I had a minor accident Saturday night. I stayed in the hot tub at the Celestial House in Exile Halloween Party a little too long, misjudged getting out, and passed out from hyperthermia while sitting on the wooden steps to it. I ended up pitched out on the pavement next to the hot tub for (depending on who you ask) somewhere between 15 and 90 seconds. I'm fine, other than some mildly infected scrapes on my face and my left knee that look much worse than they are. But there's one thing about what happened during that minute that I was unconscious that I want to take as an opportunity for an important life lesson. I am very specifically not going to name names here; nor do I want anybody implicitly naming names by proclaiming their innocence. But here's what really, really ticked me off when I came to: the roughly 8'x8' area around me, plus the narrow half-flight stairway up to that area, were as packed with people as a clown car.

As it happens, the party had three trained and/or certified EMTs and/or paramedics at it. Thank Prime that one of them was close to me when I fell, because the other two would not have gotten to me in time. The vast swarm of well-wishers were solidly and thoroughly in the way, at least 15 or 20 of them. Which makes it a darned good thing that hitting my forehead when I went down didn't do any more damage than it did, or those Very Helpful Kitties might well have crippled me for life.

I try hard not to be too disappointed in people when they do this, because it is obviously a deep neurological structure in the human brain. People do this all the time, even when it can't possibly do any good, even when they know better. I can give you no more vivid example than the well-known phenomenon (and I guarantee that it's happened to you) of Gaper Block. On a divided highway, an accident that closes down even a single lane on one side will, effectively, close down all lanes on the unaffected side, as everybody slows down to no more than 10 or 15 miles per hour so that everybody in the car can get a long, slow, careful look at the mangled car and/or any emergency vehicles that are already on scene. Behind them are a crush of people complaining about the damned gawkers in front of them ... but who will, nonetheless, all or nearly all slow down to 10 to 15 mph themselves when they get within range. And, the gods forgive us all, behind them are any emergency vehicles such as fire trucks or ambulances that can't get through on the other side because of the lane closure(s) from the accident. That's right, people, there are people who have been seriously injured because you slowed down to gawk at an accident. Well, you and everybody else, which is the point.

Look, I know that everybody was worried about me, and that they were showing minimal human decency and concern by being there for me. That doesn't change the fact that by so doing, they could have gotten me crippled or killed. The truth of the matter is that if somebody is seriously hurt, you should be doing one of two things. If you credibly believe that you are well qualified to help and you know what you need to do and you sincerely believe that nobody similarly qualified is helping, you should step in and help. If you do not believe all of those things, then you should be leaving the area. If they need your help for anything, they can yell to someone to get you. If they need random unqualified volunteers, they can yell for them. So if you want to help but somebody is already helping, let me give you the same advice I got when I got my uniformed private security training. One condition of my (former) Metropolitan Security License was that I was required to render any requested assistance to any uniformed police officer. So it comes up in training: what is the right way to offer that assistance? It is not to inject yourself into the situation. On the contrary, the odds are very good that if you don't know what's going on and you distract the officer, a situation could go from bad to murderously dangerous in a heartbeat. So no, what we were told was to stand at least 20 feet away from all parts of the situation, preferably a little farther. If it is possible to do so safely, we were told to position ourself (at that distance) in front of the officer, where if he looks up we will be in his field of view. Then stand there and wait quietly for any instructions, immobile and with our mouths shut, for the duration of the situation. And that's what you should be doing, too. I had the importance of getting out of the way of the people who are actually helping impressed on me at a very early age; I had clubbed the impulse to rush directly to the edge of an emergency when I had nothing useful to offer out of myself before I reached 18. This has stood me in good stead over the years, and is (if I do say so myself) one of the things that makes me an asset in an emergency. In fact, at the scene of somebody else's emergency, that tends to be what I do: firmly herd the gawkers far enough back that they're not in the way.

To wrap up on a lighter note, let me retell a story that isn't mine to tell, but it's one of my favorites. Back in 1978, one of my college roommates was a guy who was rather old for a freshman, in his mid 20s, who'd spent the last several years working as a paramedic in the Los Angeles area. Unsurprisingly, like most EMTs and paramedics, he had some great stories to tell. One of them involved the day that the deputy mayor of Los Angeles had a heart attack at some public event. He was in the first ambulance on the scene, and the reporters and camera crews were already there, with the cops struggling unsuccessfully to maintain room around the deputy mayor for the paramedics to work and a corridor from their ambulance to him. He got to the deputy mayor and started hooking him up to EKG telemetry, so the doctor back at the hospital could authorize any drugs or other treatment the patient might need to stabilize him for the ambulance ride. And while he was hooking up the leads, one of the camera guys and his reporter managed to crash through the police line, stuck the camera and microphone between him and his patient, and the reporter yelled in his face, "Is he going to make it?!?"

He stood up. The cameraman and the reporter stood up, glee on their faces that they were going to be the first TV station to get an official statement. Instead, he hauled off and punched the cameraman, hard, in the nose. The cameraman fell down hard, and the camera went flying over his head and out into the crowd. He then turned to the nearest cop, pointed at the reporter, and said, "Get him out of here." They locked that reporter up for 23 hours and then released him without charge. Having cleared the area around his patient, he then went back to work.

Later he found out, to his mortification, that his mother had been watching TV when the news bulletin broke in, and wondered if her son was going to be one of the paramedics who responded ... so she hit REC on her VCR. So she got to show her son how he looked while punching out a TV cameraman in the middle of a live broadcast, and the stomach churning view from that flying camera with a blood splash from the cameraman's bloody nose on the lens. He was mortified, but she was proud of him for standing up for his patient. I'm proud of him too. I'm not crazy about cops using their power to lock up reporters without charge, but those two morons could have gotten that man killed by delaying his medical treatment, just so they and their viewers could gawk.

(One last mildly humorous note: When I came too, being a Buck Godot fan, I asked everybody if anybody had sent out for a crane. And when I went inside, covered in mud and oozing blood from minor scalp wounds, several people kept asking me what happened out there? So each time, I replied: "Concrete: Apply directly to forehead. Concrete: Apply directly to forehead. Concrete: Apply directly to forehead. Concrete is available at a hot tub near you!")