An explosion in a house brings neighbors to the scene. They know there are people inside. As one person calls 911 and describes the situation, the others confer about what they can do to help the victims.
It will be a difficult decision because the neighbors can hear the screams of a least one person inside who needs help fast. Be cautious or attempt a rescue? Wait on firefighters and EMTs, or go in now? Can they get in and out with any victims without putting themselves at risk?
This is an extreme situation, but according to Maj. David Zeoli of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, in 95 percent of all emergencies, bystanders or the victims themselves are the first to provide emergency assistance or to perform a rescue.
Zeoli, deputy division commander of the Emergency Management Department, is one of two instructors who conduct the free Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) basic training course sponsored by the Sheriff's Office.
The other, Kris Legge, whose background includes combat and emergency medicine, conducts two nights of classes covering disaster medical operations.
The course is a national program that falls under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which in turn is under the Department of Homeland Security.
"Less than 1 percent of the people in the United States are trained first responders, and (first responders) are helped by volunteers," Zeoli said. "The plan is to have everyone in America participate in making themselves, our communities and our nation safer."
The most recent CERT course took place last month on four weeknights at the Technical College of the Lowcountry Bluffton Campus, with the final exercise and completion ceremony held on a Saturday at the Burton Fire District Pinewood Station.
The inch-thick manual provided to every student includes guidance, instructions and illustrations on how to carry out basic emergency preparedness, triage, fire suppression, structure searches, and basic medical techniques.
The CERT course is not as intense as a firefighter or emergency medical technician course, although both careers were represented by students attending the latest class, as well as a 911 dispatcher, a flight surgeon, a CSI, a flight attendant and a few retired military.
David Selsky, who lives in Sun City Hilton Head, was a professional firefighter for 21 years in Houston, Texas.
"I just wanted to get back in touch with community service," he said. "I could have made more money outside of the fire service, but I made a decent living, and I got to help people."
There were also people with no previous emergency training who wanted information in the class.
"I am always interested in information presented that I don't know, something that I can improve my life with," said Brenda Singleton of Lady's Island, adding that she felt she could get some answers to questions that came up during the evacuation for Hurricane Matthew. "I have gotten more than I expected and more came up that I didn't expect. I was particularly interested in getting professional training with the fire extinguisher."
The ages of CERT students in the June class ranged from 15 to older than 70.
Four students came as a family and two had plenty of emergency experience. Justin Weller was a firefighter in the Marine Corps until he retired. He now works for the BCSO Emergency Management Division. His wife, Ruth, was a damage control specialist in the Navy. Their two daughters, Jasmine and Samantha, also participated in the class.
"This is more to be able to help the people in our community and to help ourselves, really," Ruth said.
The girls, like many others, are still feeling the effects of evacuating for Hurricane Matthew while their father remained behind for his job.
"If they know what to do, it will help them in the future," said Justin.
Among Legge's lessons were creating improvised litters, bandaging, splints and simple triage - assessing the conditions of victims in a disaster.
In the practical exercise, Justin was assigned as a team leader, directing his group in searching the structure, assessing the victims found inside and documenting conditions. The team used the information they learned in class to determine whom they could help and whom they could not.
In the house explosion mentioned at the beginning of the story, even if the neighbors outside the house had completed CERT training, should they take a chance and try to gain entry to help the victims inside? "Only if they have had some sort of training with fire suppression and as a last resort to save a life," said Zeoli.
One of the most difficult aspects of responding in emergencies is recognizing the possibility that not everyone will survive. Still, Legge and Zeoli stressed one thing: "Do the greatest good for the greatest number." That means keeping oneself safe in order to help others.
The next CERT class begins Aug. 1 at Technical College of the Lowcountry, Room 125, 100 Community College Drive, Bluffton.
For information and to register, call Zeoli at 843-812-8035 or Legge at 843-263-2783, or email email@example.com.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.