The teachers asked me to come to school and do a little bit of informal first aid instruction for the kids. The students in our island school this year aren’t all that old, and they aren’t working as babysitters so they don’t need CPR cards, and they probably aren’t physically big enough to do effective chest compressions yet anyway, and they definitely weren’t interested in sitting through a three-hour class with a repetitive video and a lot of specialized jargon. So, we weren’t undertaking the American Heart Association’s First Aid and CPR certification courses like I offer to adults and older students. The teachers just wanted the children to start somewhere, and hear a bit of advice, and have a chance to ask some questions, and maybe learn to put a Band-Aid on a sibling correctly.

We didn’t begin with the Band-Aids and the ketchup. We began by talking about safety. All emergency responders — be they paramedics and firefighters, or cubicle workers taking a quick workplace first aid class — learn to check first for “scene safety.” That means to stop and look, and avoid the “tunnel vision” that all of us — even experienced responders — can be prone to, when we rush to the side of the person in need of help without taking in the bigger picture. The first step is always to look around. Ask yourself: Is it safe to get close?

The school kids and I chatted about what sorts of things might make it dangerous for a helper to run straight to an injured person. We joked a little about big snakes and fire-breathing dragons, but in all seriousness we discussed possibilities like fire, or traffic on a busy street, or power lines down from a pole, or a vicious dog, or unsafe pond ice. Sometimes you cannot help the person by yourself, and your role will be to call or run and get additional help. You may just need more people. You may need to shut off machinery or find somebody who can. You may need specialized people with equipment, such as the fire department or the electric company. You may need the snarling dog’s owner, or the police, or somebody with a boat. But rushing into danger — thinking that speed is the only thing that matters — is never the best response, regardless of whether you’re a fourth-grader or a Navy SEAL. Two patients instead of one, and presumably nobody left to go for help, is not the outcome you’re hoping for. Have a good look around and, of course, call 911 where you can.

When we try to assist somebody who needs help, we have already distinguished ourselves from the large number of citizens who say, “That isn’t my job.” One of the positive outcomes of taking a First Aid class is the silent conversation you end up having with yourself about whether or not you would be comfortable getting involved. As I assured the kids, of course it can be scary. Sometimes the person who is hurt is crying, or screaming, or has blood on them. It is normal to be scared. As we discussed in school today, “You can still be a helper even if you are scared.”

That goes double for adults.

You do not have to be uncommonly brave to get involved and help in an emergency. You need to practice. This is my pitch to everybody to get some sort of training, whether it be CPR and a minimal First Aid class, or something more (I highly recommend Wilderness First Responder, even if you are never in the wilderness. It teaches you to discern whether a situation is a life-threatening emergency or not, and encourages common sense). In the heat of the moment, in an emergency, we rely on our training, those rehearsed actions and questions. Practice really does matter.

We learn from our TV medical dramas that “every second counts.” Well, maybe; once in a while that is true, but that’s no justification for blundering into danger without even a second to think. It is not cowardly to put on that PFD before you jump into the cold water to save somebody else. The ten seconds you spend deciding how to respond correctly can make the difference between a rescue and creating an extra patient.

As far as talking about this topic with kids, I think it’s more than “Band-Aid lessons.” We don’t ask our small children to run around rescuing the general public, and diving into freezing oceans or fighting off the big snakes, but in my opinion it does a child good to start thinking about herself as somebody who could, possibly, be a real help someday. It’s never too early to begin learning about (and practicing!) safety, and to consider that, sometime, somebody may really need your help.