A mass shooting on the Lower Cape is a possibility that is almost too painful to ponder, but one that’s impossible to ignore. To that end, local paramedics are teaching school nurses battlefield techniques for controlling severe bleeding, and they’re also sharing those skills with the public.
Last Wednesday, Harwich and Chatham paramedics trained a group of nurses from the Monomoy Regional School District, as well as the school psychologist and the Cape Tech school nurse, using a special one-hour “Stop the Bleed” course developed by the American College of Surgeons. The course is adapted from one created after the Sandy Hook school shooting, using experience gained by battlefield medics in how to quickly stanch bleeding from major blood vessels.
The sad prevalence of mass shootings has, at least, yielded a better understanding of the need for this kind of specialized first aid.
“There are so many preventable deaths when it comes to bleeding,” Chatham Fire EMS Coordinator Mark Heller said. Heller and Rob Sanders, his counterpart in Harwich, have been leading the Stop the Bleed training effort. The techniques, which involve the use of tourniquets, dressings and brute force to stop bleeding, won’t save all gunshot victims. But they could help many, Sanders said.
“There is a great increase in outcomes and survivability,” he said.
Of course, gunshot wounds aren’t the only times when a tourniquet and combat gauze can be life-savers. In 2016, the Coast Guard and the Chatham Harbormaster’s office received a distress call for a boater near the Stage Harbor entrance channel who had fallen overboard and cut her legs on the boat propeller. Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Hunter of Station Chatham was one of the responders, and used his belt as a tourniquet. The improvised device worked just well enough to keep the woman alive until paramedics took over, and she survived the accident.
Local rescuers have had occasion to use tourniquets for vehicle crashes, industrial accidents and even suicide attempts. The key is to stop a major hemorrhage within minutes, often well before even the fastest ambulance can arrive.
“The whole emphasis is time,” Sanders said. While improvised tourniquets can sometimes work, rescuers strongly recommend genuine Combat Application Tourniquets, which can be purchased online for around $30. If no tourniquet is available, the training teaches rescuers how to use combat dressings – or any type of cloth – to pack a wound. In either technique, the rescuer needs to use brute force to stop the bleeding. It’s gory and extremely painful for the victim, “but it’s going to save their life,” Heller said.
The Stop the Bleed program is strongly supported by the Chatham and Harwich Fire Department leadership, and having trained the school nurses, medics will soon be offering training to other teachers. Lifeguards may also receive the training, not only to prepare them for boating accidents, but because they will likely be the first rescuers on the scene of a shark bite injury, should one occur.
But for Stop the Bleed to work, tourniquets, dressings and trained members of the public need to be everywhere. The equipment is now found in most schools and in police cruisers and rescue vehicles. At Logan Airport, visitors will now notice strategically located “bleeding control stations” stocked with essential supplies. Tourniquets and combat gauze are relatively inexpensive and are easy to stock in a small first aid kit. The final element – training the public – is now getting underway.
Stop the Bleed is appropriate for emergency room physicians, medics, teens, teachers and everyone in between, Sanders said. “The concepts are all the same,” he added. A free public class is scheduled for June 11 at 7 p.m. at the Harwich Public Safety Facility on Sisson Road. Attendees are asked to register by June 4 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The county is offering similar training on May 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the Harborview Conference Room at the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment in Barnstable Village on Route 6A. Register by calling 508-375-6617 or by emailing email@example.com.
While first responders are accustomed to regularly dealing with tragedies, there’s no denying the gravity of this type of training, Sanders said. At a recent training exercise at Harwich Elementary School, he found himself reflecting on the new reality.
“Whoever thought we’d be doing an active shooter drill in an elementary school?” he said. He knows that some parents are packing tourniquets in their kids’ backpacks. It’s a tragic commentary, “but it’s not a bad idea,” Sanders said.
At another drill in Barnstable, rescuers practiced these skills under conditions designed to stress them out. To help set the scene, someone in the school was firing a handgun with blank rounds, and the rescuers heard the sound of gunfire in a school hallway. It was surreal and sobering, Heller said. Preparing for a school shooting is a stomach-turning prospect, but it’s an absolute necessity in today’s world, he said.
“We’ve got to get ahead of this,” he said.