Conference Coverage

Tourniquets overemphasized in mass shooting response planning

Key clinical point: Tourniquets aren’t much help in civilian mass shootings.

Major finding: There were no cases of major peripheral vascular injury, and no fatalities from extremity exsanguination in a review of 12 mass shootings in the United States from 1996-2012.

Data source: Autopsy reports.

Disclosures: The lead investigator had no disclosures.




SAN ANTONIO – Tourniquets are being overemphasized in preparations for mass shootings in the United States, according to a review by the Committee for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care of wounding patterns in 12 mass shootings.

Since the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., efforts to improve survival have tended to emphasize tourniquets to stop bleeding from wounded limbs. The recently-launched federal “Stop the Bleed” campaign promotes public awareness of compression and tourniquets, and the American College of Surgeons and other groups recently called for public education and use of tourniquets as one of many responses to mass-casualty and active-shooter events, stating that “the most significant preventable cause of death in the prehospital environment is external hemorrhage.” There are thoughts of making tourniquets at least as common as automated external defibrillators in public settings.

The efforts are driven by combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, where about half of wounds were to arms and legs, and tourniquets saved many lives.

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Tourniquets are important especially for civilian bombings, but fatalities in civilian mass shootings – shootings with at least four deaths in which killing is the primary aim – are from head and chest wounds, not extremity wounds. The emphasis on bleeding control overshadows public education about other simple interventions that could be more useful in shootings, according to emergency physician Dr. Reed Smith, medical director of the Arlington County (Va.) Fire Department and cofounder and cochairman of the Committee for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (C-TECC).

“We need a civilian perspective on civilian incidents, not a military perspective,” he said at the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma scientific assembly.

Dr. Smith and other C-TECC investigators reviewed autopsy reports from 12 U.S. civilian mass shootings from the period of 1996-2012. They tried to get data for more, but ran into significant resistance from authorities.

There were 371 bullet wounds and 139 deaths, an average of 2.7 wounds per victim but a range of 1-10. About 40% of deaths were from shots to the head; another 40% from shots to the chest or upper back; and the rest from shots to the face/neck, abdomen/lower back, or multiple regions.

Dr. Reed Smith
Dr. Reed Smith

“We looked at every one of these events, and with the exception of the Gabby Giffords Tucson shooting, no tourniquets were used. There were no cases of major peripheral vascular injury, and no fatalities from extremity exsanguination,” Dr. Smith said.

The investigators estimated that nine fatalities were potentially survivable, without injuries to the heart, brain, or major blood vessels, and definitive care available within 60 minutes. The victims died from face and torso wounds, not wounds to the limbs.

“Wounding in active-shooter events differs from combat and may require different therapeutic emphasis. Although tourniquets and external hemorrhage control techniques hold value, their role in active-shooter events may be overemphasized as a means to decrease fatality. The focus on external hemorrhage is important, but it’s not enough,” Dr. Smith said.

Additional interventions could be taught for every step in the chain of contact, from citizen to trauma surgeon, that could have greater benefit. Teachers, for instance, could be taught to roll victims on their sides and clear out their mouths to keep airways open, and to keep them warm to prevent hypothermia until help arrives. Police could learn to insert nasal airways, and occlude sucking chest wounds. Fire/EMS could start initial damage control. “Everything builds,” Dr. Smith said.

C-TECC made many recommendations for enhanced mass-causality response its 2015 Tactical Emergency Casualty Care Guidelines.

Dr. Smith had no disclosures.

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