When you see a shooting: how to help victims survive. | The Survival Doctor

A SWAT team member prepares. Even in normal circumstances, help may not be able to get to you quickly after a mass shooting. Safety must be established first. You may be able to help people survive in the meantime.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Today, I’d like to address some tragedies that have been the news recently: the Navy Yard, Chicago park and Kenya mall shootings.

I won’t get into the causes or preventions of mass shootings. That’s not my expertise. Your guess is as good a mine. What I want to briefly discuss is how to help a victim survive a shooting after 911 has been called (if it’s available).

First Steps

Of course, the first thing you have to do is make sure you’re safe. Then, really all you can do right after a shooting are the basics. If there are no signs of life, start CPR. If you see bleeding, stop it if you can.

To do that, you can try applying pressure to the wound. If an arm or leg was shot, elevate it above the heart too. You might need a tourniquet and/or pressure dressing. I give detailed how-tos on various methods to stop bleeding in my e-book The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds.

Also cover the victim to keep them warm and help prevent shock.

What You Can’t Do

If the inner chest, abdomen, or head has been injured, to tell the truth, there’s not much you can do other than get the victim to a medical facility as soon a possible. Without surgery, there’s no way to know for sure what’s been injured—or to fix it. (For example, if a deep artery has been injured, you won’t be able to stop the bleeding, if it’s the intestine you won’t be able to stop contents from leaking out, leading to severe infection and shock.)

Some of the clues to potential serious internal injuries are one or more of the following:

  • A pulse rate well above 100 beats per minute
  • A decreasing level of consciousness
  • If a lung was hit: shortness of breath or decreased breath sounds on the injured side of the chest
  • If the abdomen was hit: Abdominal pain or distension (swelling), or bruising that’s spreading across the entire abdomen
Next Steps

So the quick and dirty way to help someone survive a shooting is stop the bleeding and get expert help if possible. If you can’t stop the bleeding or can’t directly see the extent of injuries you must always get the help the quickest way possible. (Ambulance? Helicopter if you’re in a remote area?)

Until you can get that help, keep the person lying down, quiet as possible, and look for any external injuries you can address.

If help is not on the way, you’ll just have to hope for the best. As time goes on, don’t give anything by mouth in someone with abdominal injuries until the pain has subsided and the person is passing gas.

Further Study

This post covers the absolute basics of how to help someone survive a shooting, especially if help is on the way. Consider it gunshot treatment 101. For further advice, and tips for when help can’t get to you quickly, see these previous posts:


Photo: Flickr/CPOA