Law enforcement, health care officials discuss mass casualty training

·4 min read

Jul. 22—On May 22, 2011, Freeman Health System employees worked frantically to treat hundreds of Joplin residents after the EF5 tornado tore through the city, destroying nearby St. John's Regional Medical Center in the process.

Freeman officials didn't truly grasp the storm's impact until a man stumbled into the emergency room, his lower intestines pooled in his arms. That first night — on generator power, with no running water, internet or telephones — Freeman physicians performed 22 lifesaving surgeries in 12 hours and cared for more than 1,000 patients in the first 18 hours.

Viewed today as hardened veterans of a mass casualty incident, Freeman officials this week spearheaded a workshop dealing with another type of mass casualty event — mass shootings.

There have been 300 mass shootings recorded so far in 2022; recent shootings include the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school massacre May 24 and the shooting at a Highland Park, Illinois, parade July 4. Mass shootings, where four or more victims are injured or killed by the shooter, have averaged more than one per day nationwide, according to The Washington Post.

"Due to all the shootings we've had, especially after Uvalde, we wanted to have a community response," said Skip Harper, Freeman's environmental health and safety and emergency management officer. "We want to do some pre-planning with all the possible people being involved in an active shooter situation."

The pediatric active shooter trauma workshop was the first of its type held in Joplin, at least in terms of size and magnitude, Harper said. Representatives from every health care provider from the region, police officers, sheriff's deputies, EMT personnel and emergency managers participated in Tuesday's workshop at the Freeman Business Center.

"Our goal is to get them in one room to start" the planning process, Harper said. "We're not going to solve the problems today, but this is a chance for us to get together, to learn each other's faces, to share what we are looking to do for the future."

The workshop emphasized pediatric trauma because, as Harper explained, "we don't have a pediatric intensive care unit ... in this area. For all of our patients, we're going to Springfield, Tulsa or Kansas City, but we have a responsibility to stabilize (them) as much as possible; we've got to prepare to be able to take care of this influx of patients."

Freeman and area medical and police agencies had practiced disaster training in the week leading up to the 2011 tornado. The plans were right there, easily accessible inside Freeman Hospital West, when the storm struck.

"We realized, no matter how much you prepared personally, it's a team approach, a community approach," whether the disaster is natural or manmade, Harper said. "It doesn't matter what I do personally. It's what we have to do as a community to be able to respond to these events."

Tuesday's workshop resulted in the establishment of a rough outline containing a regional policy should the unthinkable happen, Harper said.

"We deal with not one or two but 16 EMS agencies; we have multiple critical-access hospitals that we have to work with, multiple air ambulance groups that we have to work with, how many law enforcement agencies are out there in our region," he said, "so right now we are trying to standardize our approach as much as possible, so when things happen we're all on the same page."

What Harper and other area health professionals don't want to see in Southwest Missouri is a repeat of the chaos in Uvalde after the school shooting, which left 21 dead, including 19 schoolchildren.

"There were 376 law enforcement officers there (in Uvalde); they came from multiple agencies, EMS was there, (and) they didn't know how to work together," Harper said. "They didn't know who was in charge at the scene."

He said, "We can't wait until we have children who have been shot to work out those details."

Due to the recent uptick in violence nationally, "as law enforcement, it's our role to be prepared for that," said Capt. Trevor Duncan with the Joplin Police Department. "By creating a partnership with different businesses and agencies and hospitals ... we're all more prepared for it, and we're more ready to respond and know what each other is doing and who each other are and how to interact."

The specter of mass shootings are always in the back of police officers' minds.

"Something that happens in a small town elsewhere could easily happen here — you never know," he said. "It's good to be prepared, to have a plan and to have those conversations and training going on."