Blowout kit redux

(Edit: this is a more extensive version of the “first five minute kit” carried by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department)

I don’t know how many of you read my original blowout kit article. It was on my old Myspace page. Here is round two. Comments are not only encouraged, but requested. This is a first draft; I expect to edit it in time.

About three years ago the owners of the now closed FBMG in Draper, Utah presented a comprehensive, multi-day emergency preparedness course. The instructor there meant for the class to be a “teach the teachers” class, and that the students would become a cadre to teach their friends and neighbors.  The serious nature of the class and course material and later seeking out and acquiring to recommended items and skills, started a chain of events that continue through today. One of the class modules included a brief presentation on the blowout kit- a small kit for the treatment of serious injuries that one could always keep in an LBV, range bag, glove compartment, or large pocket. The concept was new, and recognition of the benefits of having one of these kits, and the skill to apply effectively the contents of the same, was immediate. Unfortunately, many otherwise astute members of the gun culture and preparedness community have a fascination with firearms, sometimes to the detriment of other areas of preparations, including medical preparations. These individuals may take little thought of the consequences of such an infatuation with firearms, in the possibility of a gunshot wound, whether accidental or intentional.

In those days, the movement to ensure every shooter keeps his or her blowout kit for personal use was still in its infancy. There is a growing trend towards having blowout kits, but they are not as prevalent as they should be. There are several reasons why gun owners may not build or purchase such a kit. The gun owner (particularly a CCW holder) may not understand the vital importance of such a kit. They may not know where to acquire these kits, whether prepackaged or home-built. Others may hesitate to get one (or several) because they feel their skills are not up to the prudent application of the contents. It is important to carry one, even if the owner cannot use it. It is a possibility that in the event of a shooting or other traumatic event, that a friend or bystander will have the skills to use these items to save a life. They may balk at the cost of training, considering a simple gunshot wound treatment class may cost several hundred dollars. Some see the expense of such kits and decide against it, judging maybe that more firearms or other preparedness items are a better investment. This is folly. How much is one life, especially your own life, worth? If one considers that cost against that of a complete blowout kit and it becomes trivial.

Since building that first kit, the author’s skills have improved, and understanding of the rationales behind the kit’s individual items has grown. Part of carrying such a kit, like much of the rest of preparedness, is that it is not a checklist approach, but a commitment to improve. In two years, your kit may look somewhat different than it does now, even as this kit has some different items than it did three years ago. “Mindset, skill set, tool set” is the mantra of preparedness. Education and training will affect what you place in your kit. Again, the author is not a doctor or primary health care provider, and this information cannot take the place of formal training. The author presents this essay as information only. One should always seek the advice of local skilled professionals, and call 911 in the event of an emergency.

The blowout kit is to prevent death. Serious bodily injury is a foregone conclusion, since it was precisely what caused the opening of the kit and the application of its contents. It is to save its owner’s life while further help is en route, whether by ambulance or helicopter (or someone drives the owner to the hospital, in a worst-case scenario). It is not for the owner to use on someone else (unless you pack more than one). The three consequences of injury of the greatest concern here are hemorrhage leading to hypovolemia and exsanguination, airway obstruction, and tension pneumotorax. Consequently, the blowout kit addresses these three causes of death common to victims of violent crime or severe accidents in general, and gunshot wounds in particular.

The primary concerns of the pre-hospital caregiver are airway, breathing, and circulation, the ABCs. However, extremity hemorrhage is the most likely cause of death from trauma (possibly because of the prevalence of lifesaving body armor- get some), due to rapid blood loss, and as such, the majority of the kit focuses on it. Nevertheless, in a primary assessment, remember the other considerations. Exsanguination can be very quick in the worst case. This kit contains two Israeli battle dressings, two packages of packed Cinch Tight gauze, one 4×4 HemCon dressing, one three-inch ACE bandage, and one ratchet strap tourniquet, all to deal with severe bleeding. The HemCon dressings are amazing, if you can find them. They are less than half the thickness of the newest QuikClot Combat sponge dressings, which in turn are thinner than the older ACS+ sponges. All of these hemostatic agents are fairly idiot proof. Find the bleed. Put the dressing on the bleed (or in the wound). You do not want to use these on minor injuries. They are much too expensive, and it would be a waste of resources. Use these on life-threatening bleeds only. One can use the gauze to hold the hemostatic in place or to pack a wound.

The tourniquet is an often-controversial piece of kit. Anecdotes abound regarding their use. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are not evidence-based, and tend to portray use negatively without fact. The best evidence from uses in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the tourniquet’s effectiveness at saving lives when applied judiciously. In an emergency, a tourniquet is effective at occluding arterial bleeds. Current methodology is to apply the tourniquet before treating the wound in the case of severe bleeding or amputations. If the wound will respond to direct pressure, a tourniquet is contraindicated. To use the tourniquet, place it between the wound and the heart, as close to the wound as possible and tighten to stop bleeding.

It is often beneficial to place the tourniquet above the knee or elbow, even if the wounds are distal to the joint. The brachial artery supplies the arm with blood, and is close to the humerus before crossing the humeroulnar joint. At the elbow, it splits into five arteries, three of them lying between the radius and ulna. Similarly, the femoral and deep femoral arteries are close to the femur. Inferior to the patellofemoral joint the femoral artery crosses the splits into three arteries that run between, posterior to, and anterior to the tibia and fibula. It is less difficult to stop the bleeding then at the primary arteries, even if the bleed is distal to the joint, since there is likely only one vessel to occlude, and it is against one, rather than two bones.

With the tourniquet in place, treat the wound with the hemostatic agent and pressure dressing on wound. After twelve to eighteen minutes, loosen the tourniquet and assess for continued bleeding. If bleeding continues, retighten and assess again. If the bleeding has stopped, loosen the tourniquet. One may retighten it later if necessary. In the event of an amputation, remember to apply a gauze dressing to the bone fragment in addition to the flesh of the limb, to stop bleeding there. Transport the patient to a hospital immediately.

The tourniquet demonstrated started as a ratchet strap tie-down. These are inexpensive and achieve total occlusion in moments. One makes the tourniquet by running a loop of material large enough to fit over the owner’s booted foot through the ratchet, and ties an overhand knot in the end to prevent it from slipping through. Add a second overhand knot to about six inches of slack to provide a grip. Place it in the kit so that the owner can use it with one hand on any of the four extremities. One can use the ACE bandage to hold a dressing in place, increase the pressure applied to a wound, or to protect a partially amputated limb or digit.

(Figure one, the kit on an ACT AT83 LBV)

(Figure two, the kit)

(Figure three, the kit opened)

(Figure four, the bag removed, note second ARS needle and light stick)

Maintaining an airway is vital to the patient’s life. If the patient is unconscious or has a bilateral lower jaw fracture, the tongue may close the oropharyngeal airway (Venes, 2005). For CPR, one should use the jaw thrust technique to ensure airway patency. Artificial airways provide an open airway for patients who have, or are at risk for, airway obstruction (Wilkinson & Van Leuven, 2007).When the patient has facial trauma, but is conscious, one may use a nasopharyngeal airway (NPA). The NPA is a flanged, flexible latex tube that inserts through the nostril to the pharynx. Conscious and semiconscious patients tolerate these better because they do not stimulate the gag reflex. To insert, lubricate generously with a water-based lubricant, carefully insert into the parent’s naris and twist while inserting. Remember that the nasal cavity is straight for some distance, before turning inferiorly at the nasopharynx. The distal tip should come to rest there, inside the patient’s nasopharynx (Venes, 2005). The larger the size NPA, the longer the tube is. One can generally size them by holding the flanged end at the patient’s nostril, and tracing it to the end of his jawline (Wilkinson & Van Leuven, 2007). This is the best practice for sizing an NPA. Many still size them by comparing the inside diameter of the NPA to the patient’s smallest finger. This practice is not evidence-based, despite still being included in some texts. NPAs use French sizing, with larger numbers indicating a larger tube diameter.

(Figure five, the nasopharynx)

(Figure six, sizing an NPA)

The oropharyngeal airway (OPA) is a curved rigid plastic device that creates a patent airway by holding the tongue away from the posterior of the oropharynx. It has a flange at the proximal end that keeps it from slipping too far into the patient’s mouth. Sizing the OPA is similar to the NPA. Holding the device outside the patient’s mouth and against the cheek, it should be equal in length from the corner to the mouth to the earlobe (see figure six). Turning it upside down will help with sizing. It should be neither too short nor too long, as either will not ensure a patent airway. To place the OPA in an unconscious patient, hold the proximal end with the curve ninety degrees from the curve of the tongue, insert, and rotate it down, allowing the OPA to hold down the tongue. Do not use this device on a conscious patient, as the intact gag reflex will preclude proper placement (Venes, 2005). If the patient is even semiconscious placement of the OPA will trigger gagging, vomiting, and laryngospasm if airway reflexes are intact (Wilkinson & Van Leuven, 2007). Experts contraindicate artificial airways if basilar skull fractures are likely. Additionally, stabilize and secure the head of unconscious patients to prevent cervical spinal cord injury and paralysis (Venes, 2005).

(Figure seven, sizing the OPA)

(Figure eight, an OPA and NPA)

Tension pneumothorax is a life-threatening event caused by both penetrating and nonpenetrating chest injuries. Fractured or dislocated ribs are the most common cause of tension pneumothorax from nonpenetrating injuries. In either instance, air entering through the chest wall or the pleural cavity causes intrapleural pressure to exceed atmospheric pressure. Air will enter, but not leave the pleural space, resulting in the partial or complete collapse of the affected lung. Air build-up will push the mediastinum, or organs and tissues separating the lungs (Venes, 2005) to the opposite side of the chest, causing the trachea to push against the blood vessels of the neck and the lung to put pressure on the vena cava, impeding venous return. Both of these cause a life-threatening impairment of blood flow to the brain. Early signs (besides visible trauma) include shortness of breath, pain, increased heart rate, and asymmetrical chest movement. In its late stage, trachea shift is also visible.

Treatment in emergencies is by needle aspiration of the affected lung. In the event of a sucking chest wound, first cover the area directly over the wound with an airtight dressing, preventing air from reentering the pleural space. Then aspirate the affected lung with a large-bore needle between the second and third rib at the second intercostal space (between the ribs), in line with the patient’s nipple (the mid-clavicular line), just above that third rib, and over the top of it. To palpate the location of the needle, remember “soft, hard, soft, hard, soft”. Start at the patients shoulder. The first “soft” you feel is the trapezius muscle. The first “hard” is the clavicle. The second “soft” is the first intercostal space. The second “hard” is the second rib. The third “soft” is the needle’s target, the second intercostal space (see figures eight and nine).  Remove the needle when the sound of the escaping air stops. This kit contains one Hyfin chest seal and two North American Rescue ARS for Needle Decompression. The Hyfin seal is effective at adhering to wounds even when the skin is wet or hair-covered. The ARS needle is preferred over standard angiocatheter needles in instances where law enforcement may become suspicious of hypodermic needles.

(Figure nine, the second intercostal space)

(Figure ten, needle placement for aspiration of a tension pneumothorax)

(Figure eleven, Hyfin chest seal and ARS for Needle Decompression)

The last items in the kit are for convenience and comfort. The kit contains one pair of EMT shears (to remove clothing).  It also contains one Mylar “space” blanket to treat shock, two individual packets of water-based lubricant (for NPA insertion), one pair of size large nitrile gloves (for the person working on the kit’s owner), one burn dressing (just in case), and one blue cyalume light stick (because blue contrasts well with blood and does not damage night vision). The light stick is shaded with aluminum foil and gaffer’s tape and glued to the inside of the kit. Since a majority of violent encounters happen at night, it is wise to prepare for such. One other important factor to consider is pain. If you have some leftover scheduled analgesics (hydrocodone, oxycodone, etc.), you might want to put them in there. Keep them in the original container, if possible, to dissuade law enforcement intervention.

(Figure twelve, gloves, lubricant, burn dressing, Mylar blanket)

(Figure thirteen, blue light stick inside bag)

(Figure fourteen, small contents in bag)

Another consideration is space. It is easy to make a kit so large that one cannot easily carry it. If it is not convenient to carry, many opt to leave it at home or vehicle and it will not be there when the trauma happens. The contents of the Zip-Loc bag could easily be a small kit unto itself, and fit into a thigh BDU pocket. Some have advised the possibility of vacuum sealing the contents. If you do this, ensure you can open your kit with one hand, and without any tools. You may be cold, with slippery, bloody hands, or may be with only one hand when you need it.

Remember again that your blowout kit is only for you. It is for you or others to use on you in case of one of the injuries described above. Everyone in your party should have his or her own kit. If you wear it on your person, you should be able to access its contents with either hand. The author does not recommend thigh-mounted kits for this reason. The nasal and oropharyngeal airways should be of appropriate size for the kit owner. Kits that are more generic (as for a third party) would likely dispense with the NPAs and OPAs in favor of only dealing with hemorrhage and tension pneumothorax and not a collapsed airway.

This essay cannot take the place of formal training. It is only a reference for building your own blowout kits, with rationales for selecting kit components. Many competent firearms schools and instructors now offer classes on the treatment of gunshot wounds. If one is not interested in the complete education to become a medical professional, this is an excellent option. Preparedness is about acquiring and practicing the skills necessary to save lives in a catastrophic event, or its aftermath. Recent events in Haiti show the consequences of a lack of preparedness. Like the police, when seconds count, EMS is only minutes away. Plan for the possibility of treating yourself or someone you know for hemorrhagic blood loss, collapsed airway, and tension pneumothorax due to gunshot wounds, car accidents, or other events likely in your region. Remember, when it is least expected, you are elected.

(I have recently substituted the ratchet strap tourniquet for the CAT. Although my friends with the 19th SFG still carry the ratchet straps, I wholeheartedly endorse the CAT as effective, highly occlusive, and lighter/less bulky. Expect a review soon.)

Works Cited

Porth, C.M. (2007). Essentials of pathophysiology: concepts of altered health states, second edition. Milwaukee, WI: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Wilkinson, J.M., & Van Leuven, K. (2007). Fundamentals of nursing: theory concepts & applications. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

Venes, D. (2005). Taber’s cyclopedic medical dictionary. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company.