Med school program provides care for police on front lines
■ The tactical emergency division applies on-the-scene trauma care to civilian settings.
By Susan J. Landers — Posted Dec. 14, 2009
"Officer down" isn't just dialog from a TV police drama for physicians in Wright State University's Division of Tactical Emergency Medicine in Dayton, Ohio. Instead, those words may signal the real-life need to sprint to the side of a wounded police officer.
The emergency medicine department at Wright's Boonshoft School of Medicine has provided specialized support to local law enforcement agencies for about 15 years. In July, a new division was created to better organize the department's teams of physicians and extend services to other agencies.
"In high-threat situations, conventional emergency medical services personnel may not be equipped or qualified to respond safely and effectively," said Brian Springer, MD, director of the division and an assistant professor of emergency medicine. "This is particularly true for special operations, such as aviation, bomb disposal and SWAT teams."
Faculty members and a rotating crew of about 10 medical residents are called 15 or 20 times a year to stand by in case medical treatment is required by local officers. Treatment also is provided to injured bystanders and alleged perpetrators.
Awareness of tactical emergency medicine and its benefits is growing. Medical professionals have been reported to be embedded in many SWAT teams, which also train members as medics.
Wright State is one of the few medical schools to have a formal program devoted to tactical emergency medicine. When called by a law enforcement agency, emergency team members go to the scene, medical gear in hand. They wear bulletproof vests but generally don't carry weapons.
"I carry a large backpack with airway management equipment and IV fluids," said James Brown, MD, acting emergency department chair and director of the school's emergency medicine residency program.
Team members stay close to the action. "Some of the officers who are shot in the face or neck will die within the next couple of minutes. So having us in a safe vehicle a couple of blocks down the street isn't good," Dr. Brown said.
Giving treatment in these high-threat situations means "you do an assessment and as much as you can for the patient without making any noise or shining a light," Dr. Brown said. "You do things by touch, smell and feel."
Teaching as well as treating
Training goes beyond treatment of gunshot wounds and also covers weather-related problems. Hyperthermia, for example, is a risk when officers wearing body armor endure a lengthy standoff in 95-degree heat. Hypothermia can be a risk for police snipers who may lie in 20-degree temperatures for hours.
Despite the lethal possibilities of responding to ongoing police situations, there have been no deaths or severe injuries among Wright's medical teams.
Away from the danger zone, members of the division serve as team physicians for officers, teaching them how to avoid injuries.
The program not only serves as a community service but also provides training opportunities for emergency medicine residents, many of whom are active-duty Air Force personnel from nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Dr. Springer hopes the program someday will maintain an around-the-clock support center serving all regional law enforcement agencies. "There should be no high-risk law enforcement activities going on in this region where we don't have the proper medical support."