First responders share tips for staying safe in a hurricane (and when not to call 911)

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— Imagine being at home for five days straight with no power, no way to get anywhere in a car and no store nearby to get supplies. How would you prepare for that, and what supplies would you gather ahead of time? That’s what local emergency officials want you to imagine so you can prepare for Hurricane Florence.

WRAL News interviewed local EMS and 911 center leaders about how residents should prepare, the common mistakes people make and what you should know about first responders’ demanding jobs. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Here are six takeaways:

1) Prepare now, especially for medical emergencies

Jeffrey Hammerstein, assistant chief community outreach for Wake County EMS

“Anytime that there is a chance for power outages and just crises like this, the biggest things I think we want people to understand is preparation with things like medications and prescriptions are absolutely vital. If you run out of a critical prescription and there’s no resources to get you that medication in a short amount of time, that’s going to have a serious impact. There are quite a number of people who are on home oxygen 24 hours a day and one of the most important things they can do is to make sure they are working with their oxygen provider to be sure they’ve got a good supply if they’re out of power for several days … There’s got to be planning for that ahead of time, because our resources that can help them in that circumstance get limited and exhausted pretty quickly as well. And that goes for things like nebulizers also.”

2) Know when to call 911 and when to use non-emergency numbers

Dominick Nutter, director, Wake County Emergency Communications Center

“The city has set up a non-emergency line. The number they would call is 919-996-2999 if they have a question about where the storm is, when garbage pickup is or when a billing office is going to open or something like that that’s non-essential. If they just need a ride to the shelter, then they should call the non-emergency number. If they have any question in their mind [of who they should call], of course we want them to call 911.”

The North Carolina 911 Board has shared some guidelines for people who may need assistance as a result of the storm.

  • Do not call 911 unless you have an emergency that is threatening your life or the lives of people around you.
  • For anything other than a life-threatening emergency, call 211. Operators will be available at 211 to assist with weather and traffic updates, connect callers to public assistance, and provide other general help.
  • First-responders will not monitor social media sites or networks during the hurricane. If you have a life-threatening emergency, do not reach out through social media for assistance. Call 911.
  • As the number of calls increase to a specific center, calls may be rerouted to back-up centers outside of your county. This is not unusual in emergencies, and especially common during hurricanes and other weather events. The professionals at the back-up 911 center will be able to assist you quickly and effectively.
  • Be patient. First responders are working as quickly as they can. Many of them are volunteers who are stepping into harm’s way to help make others safer. They want nothing more than to try to help as many people as possible.

3) Be patient. First responders may be overwhelmed

Hammerstein, Wake County EMS

“When conditions are really bad, it takes longer to get to you. It can be really, really difficult to get to people. With storms like this, the common things we see are trees and power lines down that are blocking the roads and flooding that’s blocking the roads. When that happens, particularly when it’s widespread, it can be extremely difficult to get to people. And during really high winds and trees coming down, it can be extremely hazardous for anybody to be out trying to get to anyone. Those are things that people really have to understand and come to terms with and figure out how to be as self-sustaining and supporting as possible.”

Nutter, Wake County Emergency Communications Center

“The city and the responders are doing everything they can to respond to every emergency, but there’s going to come a point where we’re just overwhelmed. But as soon as they can, they’re going to get there to assist them.”

4) Understand how dangerous water can be

Hammerstein, Wake County EMS

“We do see the people who, unfortunately, have put themselves in harm’s way. I mean, we hear over and over again, ‘Turn around. Don’t drown.’ But people continue to drive into water flowing over roads, and people continue to get trapped in their cars. So, being trapped in your car is one thing, but I think sometimes people don’t appreciate how easily or how little water it takes for that car to be lifted up and flow downstream. And that can be an immediately life-threatening situation. Any kind of swift-water rescue like that is an extremely hazardous event for everyone involved.”

5) Watch out for chainsaw injuries, bee stings and snakes

Hammerstein, Wake County EMS

“We see a big spike in chainsaw injuries and bee stings after a hurricane. Because if you think about it, that many trees being disrupted disrupts beehives and snakes and that type of thing. I can’t say we see a surge in snakebites, but naturally with flooding and trees down and habitats disrupted like that, you tend to see more snakes around.”

Nutter, Wake County Emergency Communications Center

“Wind damage, trees knocked down, power lines knocked down are the most common calls. [Chainsaw injuries and bee stings], those are the unique ones, and sprained ankles because people are stepping on top of debris.

6) Remember, first responders are humans, too

Nutter, Wake County Emergency Communications Center

“The big thing I also want to put out is the people who are answering the phone and the people who are responding, we all live in the same community that’s being affected, so our families are dealing with the emergency without us being there, and that’s a big thing. I understand citizens may get upset because the response isn’t as fast but the responders have to deal with different elements to get to them. So, as always, everyone is going the best they can to assist them. I think that’s the big message. But we are always here and we will be there for them at all times.”

Hammerstein, Wake County EMS

“We’re people, too. We’re affected, too. We’re going to do everything we can to help everybody we can. But the better you prepare yourself, the better off we’ll all be.”