When Prince George’s police officer Michael Risher arrived at the house on Cherry Hill Road in Beltsville last summer, he found a woman hiding in the basement with her child. Her boyfriend had just stabbed her, he said, and she was bleeding to death.
As the woman pleaded for help, Risher decided he couldn’t wait for paramedics. He ran to his cruiser for the trauma kit the police department had given him the day before. He tied up the woman’s left leg with a tourniquet and packed her wounds with gauze — actions doctors later said probably saved her life.
“I was thinking, ‘This is great,’ ” said Risher, who has also used his trauma kit to save a 14-year-old stabbing victim. “Instead of going to a scene where someone is hurt and just waiting, I can actually do something to help in the meantime.”
Success stories like Risher’s are becoming more common as a growing number of law enforcement agencies locally and across the nation issue trauma kits and train officers to quickly control bleeding. The idea isn’t to have police replace paramedics but to teach police enough about emergency medical care to keep victims from going into shock before professional medics can take over.
In many instances, proponents of the equipment say, officers are the first to arrive at an incident. Sometimes, a scene may be declared too unsafe for paramedics to enter. In such cases, a properly trained officer and a trauma kit can save lives.
“Police may arrive moments before we do,” said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. “Those moments do matter in life-and-death situations.”
The increased use of trauma kits locally comes as police departments around the region are also starting to carry naloxone, a drug that counters the effects of overdoses of heroin and other opiates. Use of naloxone is one tactic in a broad effort to combat a recent nationwide increase in deaths connected to heroin, and an example of how police officers are now expected to intervene quickly in medical emergencies.
The demand for trauma kits among law enforcement is due in large part to the rise of active shooter incidents and mass casualties such as the Boston Marathon bombings, said Alex Eastman, interim trauma medical director at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas and deputy chief medical officer at the Dallas Police Department.
In 2012, the FBI and the American College of Surgeons gathered medical and law enforcement leaders from around the country to review such incidents and come up with ways to improve victim survival rates. They took inspiration from the emergency medical training and supplies soldiers receive for combat situations.
“The idea that emerged from that is ingrained in lessons learned from our military partners, and that is no one should die a preventable death from hemorrhage,” said Eastman, who was part of the review group.
Since 2012, nearly 50 of 71 police departments in the Major City Chiefs Police Association have trained officers to use the kits or are doing so, Eastman said. He said that covers 185,000 law enforcement personnel across the country.
Locally, officers in the District, Montgomery County, Fairfax County and other agencies have the kits.
Cpl. Matthew Hargus, in charge of training officers in Prince George’s, said the most important tool in the kit is a simple tourniquet, which medics and the military alike have relied on for centuries to stop severe bleeding.
Providing immediate care is important before “irreversible shock” sets in, Hargus said. In most cases of massive bleeding, victims have a three- to five-minute window in which they must receive care before the blood loss becomes life-threatening, he said.
With the help of a federal grant, Prince George’s police ordered 2,000 kits, which cost about $50 a piece, for its officers. Nearly everyone in the department has been trained to use them. Officers in the county have used kits to save lives at least 11 times since they were first issued last May.
In the past, law enforcement was told to avoid tourniquets. There were concerns about liability, as the potential for nerve damage or causing loss of a limb was too great if a tourniquet was used incorrectly, said Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
But now that technology has improved and has grown cheaper, the kits have become “cutting edge” among police departments.
“It’s about saving lives,” Beary said. “There’s not much chance you can screw it up. It beats standing there watching someone bleed to death.”
Law enforcement officers also are trained to use the kits on themselves, which is what at least one officer did during the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September 2013, Beary said.
Now that trauma kits are becoming more common among law enforcement, Eastman said the next step is to equip bystanders with the tools to stop traumatic bleeding. In emergency situations, good samaritans who aren’t necessarily police officers should be allowed to help.
“If you’re standing at the airport and someone drops dead in front of you, you know to do CPR and go to the wall and go to the [automatic external defibrillator] and shock them,” Eastman said.
“We want hemorrhage control to be the same,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a mystery.”
After saving two lives with his trauma kit, Risher said, he’s glad control of severe bleeding isn’t a mystery for police officers in Prince George’s.
“Having this kit shows the public we’re not just here to give you a ticket or take you to jail,” Risher said. “We’re here to help.”