Summer hazards: from storms to snake bites, be prepared

Caught in a rip?: Number one rule is to stay calm.
Caught in a rip?: Number one rule is to stay calm. Photo: Michael Rayner

The holidays are here, but lurking under every beach umbrella and in every backyard barbie are ever-present dangers. Here are some some tips to help you survive the festive season.

1. You're stranded in an electrical storm

The skies grow dark. It's sticky. There's a flash in the sky, some ominous rumbling.

Summer is storm season. If you find yourself on a golf course, a beach or a park when a storm hits, you need to think quickly. If the time between when you see a flash in the sky and hear thunder is less than 30 seconds, you can be struck by lightning, so seek safe shelter, but not under a tree, says Julie Evans, senior meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology.

Get inside a vehicle or building, if possible, and avoid water and objects that conduct electricity (e.g. golf clubs, umbrellas and metal fences). Don't stay in open space or under tall objects such as trees or poles. If you're unable to find shelter, crouch down, feet together, with your head tucked down.

“After the last flash of lightning you should wait 30 minutes before leaving a shelter. More than half of lightning deaths occur after a storm has passed,” Evans says.

2. Stuck in a lift

So you're on leave, but you need to duck back into the empty office to grab something. Then – disaster. You become stuck in the lift.

Police say they rescue people from city lifts daily. Senior Constable Colin Benton, from the NSW Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit, says the first thing to do is not panic. Then press the STOP (or bell or red button) to alert the lift operator and give them the lift number.


Then sit and wait at the back of the lift; you may be in for a long wait. If panicked or claustrophobic, dial 000 if you have phone coverage. Don't try to prise open doors unless instructed by a lift technician or rescue worker, as you could fall or be electrocuted.

“If you're standing up, you tend to pace and get a bit more worried. If you sit down, you'll be lower to the floor near the vent. You can never ever run out of air. It may be hidden by decor,  but there is ventilation around the bottom of every lift,” Benton says.

3. Your companion starts choking

A seven-year-old girl in New York recently saved her choking mother's life by using the Heimlich manoeuvre to dislodge a sausage. She'd apparently seen the same technique – employing a firm thrust below the rib cage – in the 1990s film Mrs Doubtfire.

The manoeuvre, once a first choice to save a life, is now considered heavy-handed because it can break ribs and damage organs. St John Ambulance Australia first aid trainer Nick Allison says that if the choking person can't cough up the blockage, use the heel of your hand to give five blows to the person's back before checking to see if it works. If the person is still in trouble, give five thrusts to the centre of the chest. If the item hasn't dislodged and the person stops breathing, begin CPR.

“If they can't cough it up, don't muck around, call an ambulance immediately. If they stop breathing at any point, it's CPR,” Allison says.

4. Cornered or bitten by a dog

Any dog can be dangerous. The nation's public hospitals treat about 14,000 people each year for dog bites, the Australian Companion Animal Council says.

To avoid attack, The Humane Society advises against approaching unfamiliar dogs. Don't pat a dog without letting it see and sniff you first. If you fear imminent attack, don't scream or run; remain motionless and avoid eye contact. If the dog attacks, "feed" it anything you have handy, like a bag or jacket – anything to come between you and the dog. If you fall, curl into a ball with your hands over your ears and stay still until the dog retreats.

The Ambulance Service of NSW says it's best to always call 000. “Not only will NSW Ambulance call-takers immediately be in a position to send paramedics to assist and transport patients to hospital, they will be able to then provide advice based on the patient's condition to the caller that can help in the minutes it will take for paramedics to arrive,” a spokesman says.

5. Heart attack

Someone in Australia is having a heart attack every 10 minutes. That's about 55,000 heart attacks each year. Yet many people don't seek help until it's too late.

Symptoms include pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in the jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, back and arms, as well as nausea, dizziness, a cold sweat and shortness of breath. When in doubt, seek help immediately.

“There's absolutely nothing wrong with calling 000 to find out that you're not having a heart attack – that's what the service is there for,” says the professor of cardiology at Monash University, Ian Meredith, in a video on The Heart Foundation's web page.

If you're with someone having a heart attack and they're showing no signs of life, perform CPR. The Ambulance Service of NSW advises to first look for danger, a response, and then check the person's airway, breathing and circulation before starting CPR (which involves 30 chest compressions to two breaths). Watch a demonstration video here

6. Lost in the bush

Stories are plentiful about people surviving in the wild by rationing morsels of chocolate and drops of moisture from leaves, but in most cases these days, planning ahead and using technology wisely can save lives.

Police and the National Parks and Wildlife Service say alerting others to the finer details of your planned trip, as well as researching local weather conditions, is essential before embarking, well prepared, on any trip. If you do become lost, call 000. Most lost walkers are found within 24 hours.

“The best thing to do is to preserve your water, your food, and battery life of your phone once you make that initial call for help. Tell the person on the phone you'll turn it off and ring back at a certain time, say in half an hour, and stay in one spot,” Benton says.

Rescue helicopters have infrared night vision that allows crews to see people from 3km away when the person who is lost shines their (switched on) phone towards the chopper.

7. Burned in a campfire

Stop. Drop. Roll. This is the advice of the Australian and New Zealand Burn Association First Aid. For all burns and scalds, only remove clothing not stuck to the burn site. Cool the burn with cold running tap water for 20 minutes. Don't use ice or creams or butter – these can exacerbate burns.

The Fiona Wood Foundation says running water is a first choice for burns. If it's not available, then immerse the patient in cool water, or use a water spray bottle or cold wet towels. “Remember, the idea is to cool the burn; keep the patient warm,” the foundation says.

Campfires should be extinguished with water, and a ring of stones should be placed around the fire as a warning. Even when covered with sand, campfires can stay hot enough to burn feet at least four days after the fire has been covered.

Allison says that after cooling the burn with cool, running water for 20 minutes, cover it with a non-stick burns dressing, plastic wrap or aluminium foil and seek medical help.

8. Bitten by a snake or spider

Don't delay: call an ambulance immediately. Paramedics responded to 136 calls for snake bites and 288 calls for spider bites last summer in NSW alone.

Use pressure immobilisation bandages – or elasticised bandages – for poisonous snake or spider bites, Allison says. Ice packs are used for redback and white-tail spider bites to flush bacteria that can ulcerate skin. He says that if you're in doubt about the species, “take the safe option and use pressure”.

Keep the person flat and still on the ground to slow the flow of venom through the lymphatic system. Wrap the bite site with a bandage, then use the pressure immobilisation bandage from the extremity all the way up the limb.

“We don't suck the poison out of the wound or try and catch the snake because we have some of the most deadly snakes on Earth," Allison says. "Most people who chase after them get bitten.”

9. Stung by a bluebottle

Any one of the thousands of Australians each year who have been stung by bluebottles will report intense pain. Experts say it can last up to two hours.

“The bluebottle (physalia) is probably the most well-known jellyfish around the Australian coastline," says Anthony Bradstreet, the national coastal manager of Surf Life Saving Australia.

"When this touches the skin it reacts by injecting a small amount of a toxin which causes irritation and can be quite painful."

Wash off any remaining tentacles with seawater; immerse the patient's sting in hot water, but no hotter than can be easily tolerated. If local pain is not relieved, apply cold packs or wrapped ice.

10. Caught in a rip

“The first thing to think about rips is that you will never get stuck in one if you swim between the flags,” Bradstreet says. But if the worst happens, Surf Life Saving Australia says you should do the following. 

 Call for assistance, stay calm, float and raise an arm to attract attention. Rips can sometimes flow in a circular pattern and return you to the adjacent sandbank.

 To escape a rip, swim parallel to the beach, towards the breaking waves.

 Every rip is different, so if your first response is ineffective you may need to try an alternative such as floating, or swimming in the other direction.

 Always conserve your energy and use the waves to assist you back to shore.

St John runs First Aid courses: Phone 1300 360 455 for more information.