Former St. Croix police chief leads charge to get trauma kits for all local peace officers
Published: December 9, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. CROIX - It was a twist of fate that Christopher Howell, who was St. Croix police chief at the time, could not have imagined when he happened into a seminar on trauma management at an International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago in 2011.
Because of that seminar, Howell launched a push to get Virgin Islands Police Department officers equipped with lifesaving trauma management kits, he said.
Some months later, Howell had to use one of those very kits when he was shot in the line of duty.
Howell - who believes a tourniquet from a kit saved his life when he and Officer Elsworth Jones were shot on Aug. 18, 2012 - has now started Project Triage, with a goal of raising funds to equip and train all law enforcement and peace officers with the latest version of the kits.
Bleeding to death
Howell said he went into the seminar at the 2011 conference expecting some medical training for first responders.
Instead, he walked out with a new understanding about how most law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty actually die.
A group of doctors led the seminar, presenting findings from a yearlong study showing that two out of three officers killed in the line of duty do not die from gunshot or stab wounds, but rather from the blood loss associated with those wounds, Howell said.
He learned that day that if each of those officers had been equipped with a specialized trauma kit, some of them could have been saved, he said.
"The research said that two-thirds of them would have been alive had they had a trauma management kit to stop blood loss," Howell said.
When Howell came back to the territory from the conference, he started a push for the V.I. Police Department to get trauma kits for all its officers.
The kits contain, at minimum, a tourniquet, a hemostatic agent to stop bleeding, a pressure bandage and some gloves.
Howell recalls pitching the idea of equipping each officer with a kit to the police commissioner at the time, who was amenable to the idea, he said. The department then started the process of equipping its officers.
"When we first got the kits, I thought, 'It's just a matter of time before this saves an officer's life,'" Howell said. "What I didn't know was that the first officer would be me."
Months later, Howell and officer Elsworth Jones were responding to a robbery in progress at a North Shore restaurant when they were shot.
Howell and Jones were en route to the restaurant on Aug. 18, 2012, when they were attacked near Canaan Ridge as the men police say were responsible for the robbery tried to make their getaway.
Howell and Jones came under a hail of gunfire. Howell was hit in the arm and in the back. Jones was hit in the face.
Howell has vivid memories of those moments, of the split second when the realization came all at once that they were under fire, that he was hit, and that more bullets were coming.
"My initial reaction was that it's all over, that this has gone horribly bad and that I'm already dead," he said.
But that isn't how things played out.
Instead, according to Howell, training and survival instincts very quickly kicked in.
Both Howell and Jones survived the ambush.
But they were bleeding badly, particularly Howell's arm wound, which was severe.
"I was bleeding out so quickly I never would have made it to the ambulance if I hadn't broken out that kit and tied the tourniquet on that arm," Howell said.
Howell's trauma kit was in the back of the vehicle. He had to get out of the vehicle and go around to get to it.
"I was already getting to the point of close to passing out from blood loss," he said. "The tourniquet was applied to my arm and that saved my life."
Howell initially managed to get the tourniquet on himself, but it needed tightening and Jones took care of that while they waited for help to arrive, he said.
Recovery and reaching out
Howell's arm required a number of surgeries. Almost 16 months later, he is still recovering from his wounds.
But he has also spoken out about his experience, launching a push to get all law enforcement and peace officers equipped with the latest version of the trauma kit.
Howell put together a presentation for the Caribbean Association of Commissioners of Police about his experience - and that association has since voiced its commitment to providing all front line officers with a trauma kit, he said.
Howell said he is working to get donations to supply all Virgin Islands peace officers with an up-to-date trauma kit.
The new kits contain a newer generation of hemostatic agent that Howell said is considered "far superior" in stopping bleeding than the "first generation" product in the kits some VIPD officers currently have.
"I told the commissioner we need to swap out those kits we have," he said. "My goal is to do it with no government funding, with all private donations and no red tape involved. The goal is to get the community support to fund it."
And so Project Triage was born.
He estimates that about 1,000 kits will be needed to fully supply the V.I. Police Department and all the other peace officers territorywide.
The St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association has already donated to the cause, providing a donation to purchase approximately 120 kits.
V.I. Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr. said he is supportive of the effort to equip officers with up-to-date lifesaving gear.
"This particular project, Project Triage, is very important to us," Querrard said. "It definitely saves lives and Chris Howell is an example of that."
In the territory and beyond
Howell is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status for Project Triage, but until then the St. Croix Foundation is acting as its fiduciary, accepting tax-deductible donations and purchasing the kits.
A $50 donation buys one kit.
Project Triage has just launched a website, www.projecttriage.org. It includes information about the fledgling organization and instructions for donating.
Howell said the website is scheduled to start offering an electronic means of donating online within the next few days.
Project Triage also has not limited itself to the Virgin Islands.
Anyone can donate a kit to any police organization through Project Triage, according to Howell.
He has already received interest from far-flung places. "This thing in the last two weeks has really just exploded," he said. "I've gotten emails from places I never would have thought. I'm trying to help out the best way I can in helping others get kits. I've had interest in Anchorage, Alaska. I've had interest in Las Vegas."
Each kit fits neatly into a pocket on an officer's bulletproof vest, with the idea that the officer keeps it on his or her person, rather that in a car or at the station, Howell said.
"Some wounds are so severe, they won't make back to car," he said, adding that having his kit in the back of the vehicle was a misstep that could have had serious consequences if he had not been in the vehicle when he was shot.
The kits also have the name of the donor on them and a tracking number.
Howell said an officer can register the kit when it is received and if that kit is used, that information will eventually show up on the website, providing a means for the donor to know.
The initiative to equip all peace officers is close to his heart, Howell said.
"I think I could be the poster boy for it. I wouldn't be here talking to you on the phone today had I not had a kit," Howell said. "Why every police department in the country isn't all over this is beyond me."
For more information, go to projecttriage.org or email Howell at email@example.com.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.