Hospital Management of Blast Event Casualties: We Aren’t Prepared

By Maddie Roty, Biodefense MS Student

At the end of January 2021, I attended a virtual session of the Hospital Management of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE) Incidents course offered by United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD), the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), and the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI). This five-day course expanded on the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties Course, which I attended in October 2020, to include a wider array of casualties from weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This course was also of greater relevance to me as a registered nurse because it focused not on military field management, but also on civilian hospital preparedness for managing mass casualties. The course consisted of a series of lectures regarding incident command, assessment, triage, and treatment of WMD casualties. Each day focused on a different threat, with the final day featuring a tabletop exercise to apply our new knowledge. The chemical and biological sessions were largely a review from MCBC and covered material I was already familiar with through my coursework as a master’s student in the Biodefense program at the Schar School of Policy and Government, so while the review was appreciated, the most captivating sessions for me were about conventional bombings and blast effects.

Blast events, meaning explosions caused by bombs, are a surprisingly common occurrence in the United States. In 2019 alone, there were 715 explosion events, including 251 bombings, not including failed or foiled incidents. It was unnerving to learn that a survey of seven U.S. cities conducted after the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which caused 191 deaths and 1,800 injuries, found that none of these cities had the capacity to respond to a mass casualty event of this magnitude. As we progressed through the lectures, gaps in preparedness for treatment of casualties from an explosive event became obvious to me compared to what I had learned in nursing school.

A blast creates three blast zones – the epicenter, the secondary perimeter, and the periphery. These zones are important for hospital management because different injuries can be anticipated depending on which zone the patient was in at the time of the event. There are the expected trauma injuries that are obvious to even an untrained eye. Of particular interest for me were primary blast injuries, which are caused by blast waves and affect air and fluid-filled organs such as the lungs, ears, and parts of the gastrointestinal tract. These types of injuries are internal and can have a delayed onset or non-obvious symptoms. I did not learn about these types of injuries in nursing school. We also did not learn that ruptured eardrums (tympanic membrane ruptures) and bruising in the pharynx (pharyngeal petechiae) are associated with greater morbidity in bomb victims or that we should assess for blocked blood vessels (air embolisms) or collapsed lungs (pneumothoraces), even in the absence of symptoms, as these are common consequences of blast waves.

I thought this knowledge gap might be remedied during on-the-job training, so I contacted a friend who works in an emergency department as a nurse. She told me they did not receive specific training for blast events, but they were taught to assess for trauma in mass casualty events. It was stressed repeatedly during this course that blast events are not like other mass casualty events, as they may or may not result in obvious signs of trauma. I would anticipate that if a significant blast event occurred in the United States, many critically ill patients would not receive timely or appropriate care simply due to lack of knowledge about the effects of these events.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to receive this education from some of the world’s leading experts in the field. The COVID-19 pandemic has, hopefully, elucidated the necessity of hospital preparedness, even for CBRNE events that seem unlikely but could happen anywhere at any time. Increasing training, education, planning, collaboration, and funding for management of casualties caused by bombings and other blast events should be a priority for health care systems. This is not just a health issue; it is a matter of national security. 

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