The latest weapon in the arsenal of area law enforcement officers doesn't fire bullets or spray tear gas. It's a trauma first-aid kit being deployed in a battle of life and limb for those injured in motor vehicle accidents, shootings, stabbings and industrial accidents.
Equipping Gainesville officers with these kits has been the mission of Gainesville Police Department Lt. Dan Stout, who recognized the need for officers to be able to treat themselves, the public and each other in the aftermath of incidents involving high-powered assault weapons. Now, thanks to recent financial support from UF Health Shands Hospital, the agency has provided trauma kits and training to the remainder of its 300 officers.
"Every day, these officers put their lives on the line for us, and we wanted to show them how much we value their service to our community," said Ed Jimenez, chief operating officer and senior vice president of UF Health. "They were short 30 kits, so we stepped in and helped them completely outfit the department."
The trauma kit mirrors its battle-ready counterpart carried by each member of the U.S. armed forces. It contains: a SOF-T tourniquet to stem blood flow, Combat Gauze for injuries not appropriate for tourniquet use, an Oales military grade bandage and an Asherman Chest Seal designed to treat open chest wounds.
"Blood keeps flowing whether the ambulance arrives or not," Stout said. "With a trauma kit, we can apply lifesaving interventions. A simple first-aid kit is useless in massive blood-loss situations."
Gainesville resident David Nelson knows exactly what Stout means. One morning in 2008, Nelson was seriously wounded by a mentally unstable assailant wielding a machete in one hand and a firearm in the other. The man slashed Nelson's arms and torso and shot him once in each bicep. GPD officers applied the gauze from two trauma kits to control the bleeding.
"I am living proof of what officers can do if they have these kits and know how to use them," Nelson said. "I probably would have bled to death before the ambulance arrived. So much blood was pouring out of my arteries that next to nothing came out of the bullet holes in my arms."
Nearly 900 officers from nine North Central Florida agencies have been outfitted and trained as first responders. In the 36 instances since 2007 when area officers have deployed the kits, 31 lives have been saved. Today, Nelson has limited use of his left hand due to muscle, tendon and nerve damage, but considers himself one of the lucky ones."The human body can bleed out in under three minutes if a major artery is hit," said John Slish, M.D., a University of Florida assistant professor of emergency medicine and a Tactical Casualty Combat Care instructor who, along with Stout, trains officers and provides scenario-based training exercises twice each year. "In the time it takes officers to secure the scene so emergency medical personnel can safely approach the wounded, lives can be lost," added Slish, who is also a sworn law enforcement officer and former medic. "Today, there is a level of expectation by the public that officers not only render assistance, but be able to provide care at a minimal level, especially when innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire." The federal government capitalized on information gathered from combat medicine personnel and sparked interest in the idea of tactical medicine, explains Howard Mell, M.D., chair-elect of the EMS Section of the American College of Emergency Physicians and the emergency department medical director at Lake West Hospital in Willoughby, Ohio. "An EMT tactical course was created in 2001, but a vast majority of communities nationwide still do not provide trauma kits to their officers," said Mell, who also serves as a tactical physician on area SWAT missions. "The kits are absolutely essential components of any law enforcement medical program in the country, and Florida agencies are way ahead of the curve." Each complete trauma kit costs $100, plus the expense of replacing the gauze, whose blood-absorbing compound expires every three years. Mell hopes more law enforcement agencies will adopt use of the trauma kits as word spreads of their role in saving lives. "It's a matter of officer safety and public welfare all rolled into one," he said.