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July 23, 2012

How six Colorado hospitals responded to theater shooting

Daily Briefing

In the hours following last week's mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., staff at six area hospitals were thrust into disaster-response mode as dozens of wounded patients began arriving at their doors.   

Shooting leaves more than 80 wounded or dead

Early on Friday morning, a lone gunman opened fire in an Aurora movie theater during a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," wounding 71 individuals and killing 12. Authorities have identified the suspected shooter as 24-year-old James Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado-Denver. However, they have not yet disclosed a motive for the killing.

Fire department triages patients on the scene

Within minutes of the shooting, area 911 began receiving hundreds of calls, and first responders began performing triage and transporting severely wounded theatergoers to local hospitals. According to an Aurora Fire Department call log, emergency responders were asked to prioritize patients and coordinate patient flow with local hospitals.

One individual on a call with a fire department responder said, "If they're dead just leave them. We're in a mass casualty situation at this time." He added, "Please make sure that you guys set up some kind of transport officer over there that can contact the hospitals so we don't overload one."

Hospitals activate disaster plans to coordinate care

Area hospitals—many of which responded to the Columbine High School shooting 13 years ago—immediately activated disaster plans as news of the shooting surfaced.  

At Swedish Medical Center, a mass page went out alerting officials that shooting victims were en route to the hospital, and emergency workers on the scene called the hospital to determine how many patients it could take.

Hospital staff began to prepare for the incoming patients and called in additional surgeons and specialists to help handle the situation. "It's a very controlled atmosphere," says Swedish Medical Center spokesperson Nicole Williams, adding, "We all try to stay very calm and just serve the community to the best of our abilities."

Meanwhile, the staff at Denver Health Medical Center was changing shifts when the news came in, meaning more staff was on site than usual, according to emergency services director Christopher Colwell.

Seven patients were sent to Denver Health, where medical personnel immediately assessed the severity of injuries and determined whether patients required surgery. "We have obviously done a lot of training exercises since [the Columbine shooting] to try to prepare for an event like that," says Colwell.

The shooting wounded so many moviegoers that emergency workers were forced to send five adults, as well as one child, to the ED at Children's Hospital of Denver.

Aurora Medical Center, Aurora South Hospital, Parker Adventist Hospital, and the University of Colorado Hospital also treated patients from the shooting.

Hospitals communicate with families, ensure patients' safety

According to Colwell, Denver Health decided to post additional security around the facility in the wake of the shooting. "Particularly in a shooting like this, you always worry about if the person who shot them would try to come and finish the job," he says, adding that the hospital also provided security for the victims' families.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Medical Center command center field hundreds of phone calls "from very panicked people looking for their husbands, their wives, their children, Williams says.

As of Friday evening, family members for all the victims at Swedish Medical Center had been notified. "All of the victims have loved ones—family or friends—by their side, while they're here," Williams says (Carlson, Modern Healthcare, 7/20 [subscription required]; Landau, CNN, 7/20).

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