James Bray sprang into action when a car slammed into a utility pole near his home and caught fire. Bobby Bean ran to the front door of a Washougal home that was belching black smoke to check on its occupants.
Both men, and other heroes like them, have tried to help others when an emergency strikes. Police and fire officials encourage citizens to assist in emergencies, but caution them to take care not to become a part of the problem.
“It takes a lot of personal courage” to jump into an emergency situation, said Acting Battalion Chief Rick Steele, with the Vancouver Fire Department. “They do what I think most anybody would do.”
Bean said he helped because he hoped someone would do the same thing for his family. But his attempt was met with gunfire from a desperate and suicidal man. After being shot at, and spending several hours in the cold while his 1967 Mustang was in a quarantined area, he said he
would do the same thing again without hesitation. But he thinks people should be aware of the potential for things to go wrong.
“If I would have gotten shot and couldn’t work again, I don’t know what I would do,” he said, adding he has nothing but respect and praise for the police and fire personnel who responded that day.
“They had a big job to do and I’m glad they were doing it, not me,” he said.
Although a situation like the Dec. 7 Washougal fire and standoff was more of an exception than a rule, police and fire officials still suggest citizens take inventory of the situation before jumping in headfirst. They should figure out how they can help while staying safe.
“We love to see people help,” Steele said. “The problem for us gets bigger if the rescuer gets injured as well.”
For example, Steele said he has seen several people treated for smoke inhalation after they run into burning houses to look for victims. On some occasions, the would-be Samaritans weren’t even sure if anyone was inside.
“The problem with would-be-rescuers is they have tunnel vision and don’t see what’s around them,” he said.
James Bray was able to take inventory of the situation outside his home very early on the morning of Dec. 3, when he rescued a man trapped in a burning car.
At first he heard a loud noise, but wasn’t sure what it was. When he saw the crashed car wrapped around a pole, he got dressed, ran out the door and had his wife call 911 — something Washougal Police Sgt. Allen Cook said is vital for anyone wanting to help in an emergency situation.
The best thing people can do to help police is to be a good witness, Cook said. Calling 911 and keeping dispatchers up to date on the situation helps police and firefighters to know what to expect when they arrive, he said.
That advice goes for fires, robberies, car accidents and almost any emergency you can think of, Cook said.
If someone is armed, it’s important to let dispatchers know. Providing physical descriptions and automobile license plate numbers helps, too, he said.
In a stressful situation, people’s adrenaline can be so high, they can have trouble remembering facts later on. Allowing dispatch to get information at the time is vital, Cook said.
The key question for anyone in that situation to ask is: “Will they die unless I do something?” Vancouver’s Steele said. “If the answer is no, the best route is to call 911.”
It took only three minutes for firefighters to arrive to the scene outside Bray’s window, but “The car was fully involved when the first engine got there,” Vancouver fire Capt. David James said at the time. The driver “would not have survived if he had not been pulled out.”
Bray said he went from one step to the next to the next by assessing the situation and reacting.
He cut his hand with a clip on his flashlight while breaking through the car’s window, had a few other minor cuts from broken glass and coughed for the next day due to smoke inhalation, but his injuries weren’t bad at all, he said.
“I wasn’t thinking about any kind of danger, I just really wanted him to get out of that car,” he said.
Would he do it again?
“I definitely don’t want to,” Bray said. “If I had to, I would.”
Suzanne Arnits, community partners director for the Southwest Washington chapter of the American Red Cross, encourages citizens to help in the case of medical emergencies. She said citizens can take advantage of first aid training classes offered by her organization.
“You never know when you’re going to be in a situation when you’re going to need to know first aid,” she said.
Training will allow citizens to act as a first responder until professionals arrive.
The organization also encourages businesses to have automatic external defibrillators and first aid kits available, just in case, she said.
Anyone interested in training can call the local Red Cross office at 1-888-434-1966 and ask to be connected with health and safety courses. Information can also be found at http://www.swwredcross.org/take-class.