survive serious injury?” Part 1

By Chuck Remsberg
The gunfight’s over. The attacking suspect lies dead on the pavement, but your partner is badly wounded, leaking blood profusely. Until EMTs arrive, what can you do, besides administer first aid ASAP, to help this desperate officer survive?


Realizing that your response could make a life-or-death difference, PoliceOne asked 5 prominent trainers of survival psychology what they would advise. And what would they suggest if you are the injured party, lying there alone or perhaps surrounded by others who don’t know what’s best to do or say?

In this 3-part series, these experts offer practical tactics you can use to confront grave survival challenges that may remain after the shooting stops. These techniques, in fact, can be applied in any serious injury situation-at an auto accident scene, for instance-whether you are helping a hurt LEO or a civilian.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, behavioral scientist with nearly 30 years’ experience in LE psychology; executive director, Force Science Research Center, Minnesota State University-Mankato:

“Negative fantasy is the greatest enemy of any success,” Lewinski says. “So in dealing with an injured officer or other person, you want to minimize the opportunities for their mind to roam to how bad the situation is. If they’re focused on the negative, their imagination can be the worst thing and can actually promote their going into shock, even dying.”

He recalls a terrible traffic accident, with multiple fatalities and severe injuries. “The person who was most traumatically affected at that scene was a rookie who just stood and watched what other people were doing. Because his brain was not productively occupied, it sought out all the negative stuff to dwell on.”

To successfully intervene, Lewinski recommends, first “catch the wounded officer’s attention so they hear what you say to them. You want to get them out of any internal preoccupation and focused on you. Let them know that ‘together we’re going to make it.’ For most people, there’s a tremendous calming effect in knowing that someone else is in the struggle with them.

“Your exact words aren’t so critical, but you need to be encouraging, to transmit the belief that no matter how gory or how bad the situation looks, together you can overcome it. By being calm and reassuring, you can help build their belief that by working with you, they will survive. And what they believe can be crucial to the end result.

“Give the injured officer something to do-to press a wound to help stop bleeding, to hold a piece of plastic against a sucking chest wound to help seal it, to talk to you, even to just look you in the eyes. Get them working with you in some way and keep them involved.

“Remind them to breath deeply and rhythmically as a calming technique. This helps lower their pulse rate and blood pressure and will help slow down bleeding and reduce the risk of going into shock. If they’re in a state of shock or panic, they’ll leak more. The slower blood flows, the greater the chance of it coagulating.

“Every little thing you can get them doing will help them feel empowered. The more empowered someone feels to be able to influence their survival, the more positive their attitude will be and the more effectively they will work with any resource that’s available to help them survive.

“Depending on how quickly you feel that medical help can reliably arrive, you may want to consider taking the wounded officer to the nearest ER rather than wait. This helps them see that they’re actually advancing toward professional care, rather than just lying there hoping and waiting for its indefinite arrival.”

Lewinski cites a situation in Canada in which an officer disengaged from a gunfight in order to walk his partner, who’d been shot in the face, to a hospital half a block away. “The officer decided it was more important to save his partner than to apprehend the bad guy right then. And the partner was boosted psychologically by knowing he was the top priority.”

If you are the wounded officer, focusing on whatever you can do to help yourself, even if it’s just breathing deeply to calm your system, will be important, Lewinski stresses. If other people are around, “providing direction for them will help you take charge of your own crisis. You can empower yourself by building a supportive team to get things done.

“Most important is a positive, determined belief that you can survive and are employing the mechanics to do it,” Lewinski told PoliceOne.

He describes a conservation officer who suffered multiple broken bones and other major injuries when his surveillance plane crashed in a remote part of Africa. He faced unbelievable dangers. The heat was so intense that he had to seek the only shade available, the plane itself which was leaking fuel and could explode. Lions and hyenas stalked him. When he rolled over at one point, he cracked his pelvis on both sides. Broken shards of bone chewed into his muscles whenever he moved. He suffered spasms from waste products building up in his body. He feared gangrene.

But he did everything he could think of to keep his mind off his injuries and on his survival, beginning with painstaking crawling to where he could retrieve sticks that he lashed to his broken legs with his boot laces to form splints.

“The key in his situation was his positive belief system-the will to survive, accompanied by the determination that he would survive,” Lewinski says. “In a situation in which many people would see only a bleak, morose future and would die of discouragement, this officer prevailed. He kept himself alive until finally he was found and rescued, as he firmly believed he would be.

“Your mind-what it is set to do and what you believe you can do-is the most powerful instrument you have. But this kind of mind-set doesn’t just fall on you from the sky. You have to cultivate from as early on as possible so you can bring it to the situation when your life or the life of a fellow officer is on the line.”

Paul Ruffolo, presently with a special investigations unit of the Illinois State Police, after 27 years as an LEO and police trainer in the US and abroad; ILEETA presenter on “The Will to Win: Self-Improvement and Motivation:”

“Trainers need to begin indoctrinating survival at the recruit level,” Ruffolo told PoliceOne.

“New officers need a reality check on how dangerous things can be on the street, to counteract the tendency many have early in their careers to think they’re invincible behind that badge and vest. But they also need to get into their head that there’s nothing out there they can’t survive. That does not mean there’s nothing that can hurt them.

“The attitude needs to be: ‘There’s some real bad stuff out there, but I can survive it. I can win in any situation.’ If an officer doesn’t have that mind-set, it’s going to be harder for him to cope with a severe wound.”

At an injury scene, Ruffolo advises that you “first do what you can to get the wounded officer safe from additional assault.” Then administer battlefield medicine, in which, unfortunately, many officers are “woefully inadequate,” he says. “A lot of times people don’t survive because basic first aid isn’t given. You need to know how to stop blood flow, how to get blood to the head so the officer doesn’t pass out, how to prevent shock. If an artery is spurting blood, that’s not the time to be talking. Tie it off-then we’ll talk.

“It’s important that the wounded officer know you’re there and that you’re not going to leave him, you’re going to stay with him physically and emotionally and see him through this ordeal. Touch is an important element. Hold his hand to make sure he knows you’re there. His body may be going through a tremendous upheaval and you may not be sure he hears or understands what you say.”

To motivate a will to survive, “try to get him focused on things that are important to him-family, job, religious beliefs, retirement, whatever. It’s easiest to get people to fight for what matters most to them. If they’re not around, these things they care about will suffer. They need to feel there’s a purpose in their surviving, that their surviving is critical to their values. By reinforcing the things most valuable to them you can link their thought pattern to their performance in fighting to hang onto life.

“If you know the officer well, you’ll probably know what linkage to capitalize on and to keep foremost in his mind. If you don’t know him, try kids or other family. Most people are very sensitive to this. If the officer is someone you’ve worked with closely, tell him you need him to survive because there’s a lot more you still need to learn from him.

“The wounded officer may constantly be asking: ‘Is it bad? Am I going to make it?’ Give only reassuring responses, not too much medical information. Make as light as possible of the injuries, even if they’re horrendous. Listen for cues that they think they’re not going to make it. They may ask you to deliver messages to their spouse or children, for instance. You can respond, ‘You’re going to tell them yourself, because you’re hanging in and you’re going to come out of this to see them again.’

Ruffolo encourages the use of guided visualization techniques to mentally rehearse helping a downed officer-and to help keep yourself alive if you are wounded. Part of creating the optimal mind-set, he believes, is putting aside cynicism and reinforcing the conviction that law enforcement is a special calling.

“As an officer, you go out and improve the quality of life for people every day. That is a noble thing. If you truly believe that, it constantly impacts your self-image. When you have a picture of yourself that requires you to always give your best, toward your goals, that will help you to survive when your best effort is needed to stay alive.

“When you do make it through, you’ll have a sense of gratefulness and a sense of ability. Surviving builds confidence. You’ll know, ‘I did this. If I did it today, I can do it again if I have to.”

NEXT: More life-saving insights from top survival experts on tips for staying alive after suffering serious injury.