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When Every Second Counts

Over half of the 55,000 daily 911 calls are from Americans 55 or older. Here are 7 tips to help EMTs save you

Tip 1: Clear the Way

Snow and untrimmed greenery can impede Emergency Medical Services (EMS) access. If you live in a single-family home, have someone plow or shovel as soon as possible after it snows. Trim bushes and low-hanging trees by your driveway; keep stairways in good repair. If you live in a condo or apartment complex, alert your super or front desk that EMS will need access to you.

Why Rescue Workers May Not Be Able to Help You

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If you have physical disabilities that might hinder a rescue, let your local 911 dispatcher know.

Tip 2: Make Your House a Beacon

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) have detailed maps and GPS devices to help them get to you quickly. But bad signage and lighting can cause big delays. If you live in a condo or apartment, ask management for abundant lighting. With a house, consider using reflective numbers, or mark the curb front with reflective paint.

Tip 3: Don't Lock Out EMTs

EMTs and firefighters will break down a door to reach you, but that takes time that patients in crisis may not have. Make a key available. Stow a spare in a small lockbox outside the house. You can yell out to EMTs where to find it. Or better: Call the local EMS and ask it to note the lockbox location and combination in its database.

Tip 4: Declutter Your Home

As people get older, they may not tidy up their homes as much as they used to. The resulting clutter can keep EMS from getting a stretcher into the room where it's needed — and delay lifesaving CPR. Clear a path to all rooms where people spend time, and provide an open space around a bedbound person to allow EMTs to do their work.

Tip 5: Keep Your Records Handy

If EMTs find you alone and unconscious, they have no choice but to rattle through night tables and pockets in search of meds, monitors and records. Keep health cheat sheets on the fridge, including an up-to-date list of your physicians, medications and surgeries, plus copies of your most recent EKG and advance directives.

Tip 6: Swap Out Confusing Jewelry

Standard medical-alert jewelry sends its message loud and clear. Charms designed to be fashionable, however, can easily be mistaken for ornamental baubles. Replace them: The red Star of Life symbol incorporating a medical staff is instantly recognizable. Also, include an 800 number for an emergency medical information service.

Tip 7: Alert EMS to Special Needs

An ambulance crew of two is often incapable of safely lifting someone weighing over 300 pounds: Special equipment must be called in. Phone your local 911 dispatcher and ask for a note to be added to your home-address file about a person of size on the premises, or about any other physical disabilities that might hinder a rescue.

After You've Dialed 911

Whether you or a family member or caregiver calls …

Stay on the phone; answer the dispatcher's questions and follow directions. Lock pets away if you're home. Have someone walk the dog away if you're on the street. Don't move the patient if she has fallen or been injured — unless she is in harm's way. Don't give the patient anything to eat or drink unless otherwise instructed by 911.

Gather your personal effects so you'll be ready to leave when the ambulance arrives. If possible, send someone to the front of your house or building to wave EMS in. Open the front door; make sure the front light is on.

Peg Rosen is a New Jersey–based EMT and writer who frequently covers health.

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