Ambulance drivers, EMTs, and other responders may not yet be able to perform brain surgery or heart transplants at the accident scene - but that time might be not too far off, thanks to rapid and continuing advances in medical technology, ultrasound and data-retrieval systems, and other scientific breakthroughs.
The field of medicine has come a long, long way from the early 20th-century tradition of family doctors, homespun remedies, and much lower life expectancies. People are healthier today, and usually live longer lives, but the technology of terror also has grown exponentially, creating a need for a new public-health priority: emergency preparedness.
Recent-year increases in the number of mass-fatality incidents, combined with the increasingly bizarre nature of some of those incidents, have led to the formation of specially trained medico-legal teams to deal with the on-site aftermath. This is their story, which is more complicated, and sophisticated, than anything seen on national television.
One of the most important, best managed, but only theoretically "secret" weapon in the U.S. defense arsenal is the Strategic National Stockpile (of medicines, pharmaceuticals, and other life-saving goods and materials needed to counter biological and/or chemical "incidents," including terrorist attacks). Fortunately, this weapon is designed to save lives, not destroy them.
First responders do their utmost to save the lives of those seriously injured in mass-casualty incidents. Medical examiners and local volunteers have what is sometimes a more difficult job: identifying the bodies, "processing" the remains, and notifying the victims' families.
In times of sudden disaster, help may be just around the corner - particularly if a ham radio operator is living there. Their ranks are legion, they usually pay all of their own costs, and they are among the most highly skilled communicators in the country. That combination makes them especially valuable as invisible volunteers in the nation's domestic-preparedness community.
Most medium-sized or larger U.S. communities are now better prepared than ever before to cope with "routine" incidents such as car crashes and motorcycle accidents. But a much smaller number is able to deal with truly major incidents that stress not only the rescue equipment available but also the skills of the first responders on the scene.
The United States is home to probably the most ethnically diverse population in the world. That is a blessing in many ways - but it poses major difficulties for emergency-management officials and other leaders in times of crisis, when the responsibility of warning the public becomes a polyglot challenge.
The goal is the same - doing the most good for the most patients. But there are several significant, and perhaps educational, differences between the way that French medical-response units are trained and operate as compared with their American counterparts.
Friends helping friends, neighbors helping neighbors - it's Biblical, it's common sense, and it's the right thing to do. But it's also much more complicated in today's world, when mass-casualty incidents can cause so much damage that very few communities can recover without outside help.