By Patrick Buffett, Fort Lee Public Affairs

FORT LEE, Va. – Twenty-one firefighters and emergency medical service personnel from the Tri-Cities, Richmond and Upper Peninsula areas – and from as far away as Fort Bragg, N.C. – attended a two-day Tactical Emergency Response Course at the Warrior Training Center at Fort Lee Friday and Saturday.

Through classroom training, hands-on practice drills and an end-of-course mass casualty exercise, the first responders learned how to perform life-saving medical assistance in severe-injury situations that could range from an active shooter incident or explosive attack to vehicle accidents or weather-related disasters.

“The main motivator of this course is the need to get emergency personnel with trauma first aid training into ‘warm zones’ – places where threats or hostilities still exist – a lot quicker,” explained Assistant Chief Brian Harness from the Fort Lee Fire Department, the sponsor of the event.

“This doesn’t just apply to mass-shooting incidents, but I’ll use them as an example,” he continued. “In situations like the Aurora (Colo.) movie theater attack or the elementary school shooting in (Newtown) Connecticut, many suffered wounds that caused severe bleeding or airway issues where the survival rate is measured in seconds; meaning not much time for medics to get to them. We’re building the framework here where the police could bring us in sooner to address those immediate needs and potentially increase the overall survival rates among victims.”

Many of the procedures covered in the course were pulled from the current playbooks of Army combat medics. Instructors talked about lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and focused on topics like treating a gunshot or sucking chest wound. Subject matter experts like Jeff McPhearson from the Southside Regional Medical Center, Richmond; Damien Coy from the Old Dominion EMS Alliance, Richmond; Kevin Michalek, EMS division chief, Petersburg Fire Department; and Anthony Harbour, a prehospital trauma life support instructor in Richmond, also shared their knowledge of hemorrhage control, tourniquets, opening airways and chest catheters, among other topics.

“All of those things sound pretty horrific, I know, but it’s the reality of what we as emergency responders have to be prepared to do,” said Shaun Rogers, a firefighter-paramedic at Fort Lee, and one of the course instructors. “Any one of these life-threatening conditions could result from a major car accident or even something as simple as an incident at home where someone falls, gets cut or suffers a heart attack and stops breathing. That’s what I like about this course; it teaches skills we’ll be able to use on a regular basis and increases our ability to assess, act quickly and save someone’s life.”

An important component of the course is its hands-on scenarios and exercises, Harness noted. What students learn in the classroom is immediately put to the test with drills that incorporate victim extraction gadgets, blood-gushing training aids and high-tech first-aid dummies that “do everything except get up and walk,” he said.

In one drill repeated several times over the two days, an instructor shouted “you’ve been shot in the (arm or leg), put on your tourniquets!” The room went dark as class members reached for needed equipment in the aid bag strapped to their side. Slowly, hands raised to signal completion of the task, and an instructor checked pulses to ensure the tourniquet was tight enough to choke off the blood flow.

“This is the sort of thing that needs to be instinctive,” Harness said after one of the drills. “It’s just as important to be able to treat yourself so you don’t become a casualty.”

Participants expressed excitement about the training. Moments after demonstrating his prowess with inserting a breathing tube down the throat of a training mannequin, Fire Department Lieutenant Nick Towers from James City County said he was anxious to take the information back to his organization.

“There is no doubt we live in a world of increased violence with a greater potential for mass casualty incidents,” he said. “With that in mind, we have to be better prepared for this level of (traumatic medical care). I see this as a starting point for our department. I’m excited about taking this information – especially the stuff about tourniquets that we barely discuss at all – back to our classrooms and having the material to back up the training.”

He also discussed his department’s plans to form a tactical response coalition in James City County that would include police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. He said he wants to bring this training “back to the table” to show how a police Special Weapons and Tactics Team could potentially use properly trained firefighter-EMS personnel in the future.

“No more sitting on the sidelines until the scene is completely cleared … that’s what I’m excited about,” Towers said. “If we can make this work, it’s going to be a big step forward for emergency responders.”

Towers also gave kudos to Fort Lee for hosting the training.

“This is fantastic,” he said of the location and shared information. “The Army has been putting this into practice for years. We’re just sort of coming into it. What a great environment to not only show us the tactical skills needed but also effective ways to conduct the training when we go back to the department and share the skills we learned.”

For others like Kellie Estes, a 7-year firefighter from Prince George Fire and Ambulance, the course was one more opportunity to learn something new.

“I like the adrenaline of this; tackling new challenges and taking my abilities to the next level,” she said. “Training like this gives you a boost in confidence. I’m certain it’s going to enhance my ability to respond to emergency situations and provide immediate care when it’s needed.”

Harness said responses of that nature are typical in his department as well. He credited a lot of the course’s success to the staff at the Warrior Training Center – particularly Sgt. Brian Esslinger who took the lead in getting training spaces reserved and adding elements of chaos like smoke and simulated gunfire and explosions to the final exercise on Saturday afternoon.

“The main reason this training package is successful is because of the enormous level of effort that is put into it,” Harness said. “This was the fourth iteration of the course, and I’m proud of our department and Fort Lee for taking a lead role in getting this information out there to the first responder community.”

The next tactical response course is expected to take place in October, the assistant chief said, and Fort Lee Fire and Emergency Services is slated to present a law enforcement version of the course for Provost Marshal Office personnel in the next few months.