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“Who would invent something like this?” says the instructor.
“Napoleon!” says a voice from the audience.
That’s right,” says the instructor. “Someone who hurt a lot of people. And who didn’t want to waste time saving soldiers who were going to die anyway.” She pauses, reconsidering the last statement. “But it’s really the most efficient way to do the most good for everybody.”

It’s time to sort the living from the dead at NERT training. The experience is oddly familiar, since standard rules from Hide and Go Seek are observed. The rescuers go outside the room to confer while the hiding happens.

Inside, the talk is of getting into character. Certain victims are instructed to pant heavily, others to respond nonsensically to questions. Those sorted into the “yellow” category are given this motivation: “You’re noisemakers. You’re basically a distraction. Scream a lot.”

With that, the dead and the wounded, frisky after two hours of sitting still and learning about how to clear obstructed airways and identify varying degrees of burns, scatter busily to the edges of the community room. They crawl under chairs and wriggle behind sofas.

The instructor turns off the lights. “Let’s make this hard for them.”

The door opens. “If you are able to, move towards the sound of my voice!” one of the rescuers says, with some hesitation. The class had been taught to do this as a way of sorting the less injured (the yellows) from the wounded who will need more immediate attention (the oranges and reds). Those able enough to walk towards rescue are then to be converted into rescuers themselves. “Give them clear directions,” the class was told earlier. “Like ‘Hold this in place or this person will die.’”

The rescue group moves around the room from right to left, examining the performatively slumped. The task is to sort them on the basis of whether they have bleeding or broken bones, and whether or not they can respond to simple verbal commands. Also: whether or not they are dead.

The wounded will be bandaged, obstructed airways will be cleared, broken bones will be splinted. Objects that people are impaled on will NOT be removed, but left in for the arrival of more experienced medical personnel. After basic first aid has been performed on those who need it, the dead are to be moved away from the wounded. Moved as far away as possible, the class was told. “It is very stressful to be alive and next to a dead person.”

The lights flicker back on. “Victims, stay where you are,” says the instructor. “You can stop being victims though. Raise your arms.” Arms go up.

“Look at this,” says the instructor. “You forgot to talk about which arm to mark. They’ve got tags on both left and right wrists. So you could wind up doing triage on the same person more than once. “ The rescue group looks abashed.

“Was anyone misidentified?” An arm goes up, with a yellow wristband attached. “I’m supposed to be dead!” says the victim.

“He was breathing!” mutters one of the rescuers, indignantly.

“And how many of you have wristbands?” She counts nine. “There were thirteen victims total,” she says. “Where are the rest of you?” A few arms pop up from behind sofas and underneath chairs.

“When I see a rescue party, I want to see people trying doors, looking under beds and closets.” The rescue group looks even more abashed.

“And why aren’t you testing capillary refill and doing head tilt?” The rescue group now looks like it wishes the earth would open up and swallow the rescue group.

“I know.” says the instructor. “Touching a conscious stranger is a very funny feeling. You did alright. In these exercises, there’s always one person who goes up to a victim and says ‘Oh! Oh!’ And then runs away. None of you did that.”

Triage is one of the skills that will be practiced over and over again by local NERT groups, precisely because it is so complex, and easy to make mistakes. “Consider being the victim,” says the instructor. “As you become the victim, you learn more from people’s mistakes in saving you.”

Disaster Training, Part 1: What to Have on Hand

NERT Disaster Training, Part 2: Gas, Fires Rescues

NERT Disaster Training, Part 3: Triage

NERT Disaster Training, Part 4: Searches, Rescue, Axes.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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