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TO WATCH THOSE droll, cucumber-cool doctors and emergency-medical service crews on TV shows such as "ER" and "Rescue 911," you'd think handling emergencies is just another day at the beach.

But what if a life-and-death drama happened to you? Would you know what to do? Experts say the answer is probably no."People don't think about emergencies until the moment they're confronted with one," says James Campbell Quick, a research psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington. By then it's nearly impossible to determine the best course of action.

Here are five hair-raising scenarios and how to pull through them.

1. You're driving alone in a desolate area at night and your car breaks down. According to Louis R. Mizell Jr., a personal-security expert in the Washington, D.C., area, more than 2,000 serious highway crimes this year will involve a car that has broken down or run out of gas.

Pull your disabled car into a well-lighted area if you can, turn on the emergency flashers and tie a white cloth to your door handle, trunk or antenna.

If you have flares, light them 200 feet in front of and behind your car to alert passing motorists, says Barbara Crystal, public relations manager for the American Automobile Association.

Then sit in the car with the windows rolled up and the doors locked. Some experts recommend that you also place a sign in the rear or side window that says "Call police." This conveys your distress and may deter criminals.

"The thing to realize is that people have been abducted or worse after their car has broken down," Mizell says. In fact, about 315 women, men and children are victimized each year by "good Samaritans" who are actually up to no good.

Be cautious about offers of assistance from anyone. Rather than accept a ride, ask the person to call the police for you.

And always insist that officers show their credentials through the closed window. Many criminals (about 25,000 a year) masquerade as officers. Some, wearing authentic-looking badges and/or police uniforms, prey on waylaid motorists.

Other impersonators even have flashing lights on their car. If you suspect an officer is not legitimate, don't open the door.

2. You're at home when an intruder breaks in. About 15 percent of the estimated 3.2 million break-ins that will occur this year will take place when at least one person is at home, according to Mizell.

If you suspect that an intruder is in your home, don't confront him. Run to a neighbor's house and call 911 from there.

If you can't exit without the chance of a confrontation - you're upstairs and hear someone downstairs, for instance - lock yourself and your children inside a room with a telephone, barricade the door with a dresser or heavy chair and call 911.

Your next move, says Morton Feldman, executive vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, "is to create as big a ruckus as possible." If you make noise - set off an alarm; turn your radio on full volume; holler as though you're talking to someone: "George, there's someone downstairs!" - you may scare the criminal away.

3. You're in an elevator that gets stuck, and no one responds to the alarm. First try the two-way communication system. If no one answers, push the "door open" button. The elevator may have stopped at a floor but the doors may simply have failed to open.

If they open, it's safe to exit only if the elevator floor is level with the hall floor. If the doors are closed or partially closed, don't try to open or squeeze through them. And don't lean on them. Most elevator accidents involve malfunctioning doors.

Instead, sit on the floor away from the doors and wait for help. Standing is dangerous: Although elevators are designed to start and stop slowly, they can ascend or descend suddenly and rapidly.

Never attempt to exit through the elevator's roof. While it's possible to do so in elevators built more than 30 years ago (newer ones can be opened only from the outside), it's the last place you want to be.

"The roof doesn't have a smooth surface; it contains moving parts, and you could easily fall," says Floyd Rommel, executive administrator for the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities. "Roof escapes are shown in movies only for drama."

4. You're in a crowded public place and discover your child is missing. The most common mistake parents make when their child is missing in a public place is to "waste precious time" looking for the child themselves instead of enlisting help, says Ben Ermini, director of case management at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Parents should immediately go to a checkout counter, security office or lost and found - whichever is closest - to report that their child is lost.

Most public places, Ermini says, have standard procedures for dealing with missing children, such as turning on cameras to monitor parking lots and calling the police.

When you talk to security personnel, offer details about where your child was last seen, what he was wearing, a physical description (show them a photograph if you have one) and his nickname if he has one. A lost child will probably be scared and might more readily answer to his pet name.

Then return to the spot where you were last with him in case he's just wandered off and returns.

5. You awaken in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke. Immediately crawl out of bed and onto your hands and knees, says Julie Reynolds, manager of public affairs for the National Fire Protection Association. The air between 12 inches and 24 inches off the floor is safest and coolest.

If there are others at home, yell, "Fire! Get out!" Forget about gathering valuables. If you have small children, say their names aloud to your spouse, e.g., "I'll get Christopher, you get Mark." You don't want any confusion about who's getting whom.

Use an escape route that keeps you as far from smoke and flames as possible. Going toward them should be your last resort, Reynolds says.

Before you open any closed door, feel it and the handle with the back of your hand (it's more sensitive than your palm). If it's hot, use another exit. If the door is cool, brace your shoulder against it and open it slightly to see if the route is safe. Be prepared to slam the door shut if necessary.

Should you need to leave through a window, the NFPA cautions against using one that's higher than the second floor. Back out of the window, hanging by your hands, and drop, don't jump, to the ground. You're less likely to sustain injuries. If you have kids, dangle and drop them before you go. Once outside, don't re-enter the house.

If you live in an apartment or are in a hotel, always use the stairwell instead of the elevator, and be sure to take your key in case you need to get back in because of blocked exits.

If that happens, hang a white garment out the window to signal firefighters. Open the window slightly to let smoke out and fresh air in. But don't open it all the way - this may allow smoke from outside to enter.



911 do's and don'ts

Although dialing 911 has become synonymous with saving lives, it's not a fail-safe system.

Gary Allen, an emergency-services expert in Berkeley, Calif., with 20 years experience as a 911 dispatcher, offers the following advice to increase your chances of a quick response:

- Call 911 only in life-or-death emergencies. Inappropriate use of the system leads to inefficiency. When reporting a crime that has already occurred and in which no one was injured, phone the police department instead.

- Give the dispatcher a very brief overview of the situation and tell her what you need - police, medical services or firefighters.

- Answer the dispatcher's questions calmly and specifically. This will help her in guiding you through any lifesaving procedures, such as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and in relaying necessary details to police. Don't become impatient or cross if the dispatcher seems cool. She's trained to remain calm so that she can better assist you.

- Teach your child how to use 911. Most 911 systems in the United States can verify immediately where the call is coming from, so that even a very young child can be effective.

"Most kids know what to do, but don't know when it is appropriate to call," Allen says. Tell your child to call any time she feels unsafe - if Mommy or Daddy is hurt, for example, or if she feels she's in danger. The dispatcher can assess if it's truly an emergency.

McCall's magazine/Distributed by New York Times Special Features