The past week has shown us that you can never predict when a peaceful protest will escalate into something violent. (Though it’s certainly happening a lot these days, mainly thanks to inappropriate responses from the police.) If you’re headed to a protest, it can be helpful to brush up on your first aid basics—and to find out if anyone in your group has further training.
Find out if your group has designated medics
Groups that organise or support protests may have a person or group of people who carry first aid supplies, and who may have some training in how to use them (whether they’ve had first aid training or are off-duty emergency or healthcare professionals). Even if no one has a formal designation, be aware of who has some first aid training or is carrying supplies. If that’s you, let people know.
If you’re looking for first aid or CPR training yourself, taking a hands-on class is best (here’s a locator from the Red Cross). But there are online options, like this from Tafe NSW, which is free and very useful.
There is also a book-length guide to street medicine for protests at riotmedicine.net. (The signed link there wasn’t working for me, but there is another version here.) This includes first aid information alongside advice about organising as part of an activist group and improvising equipment in an emergency.
Know the basics
First, you should know the very basics that will allow you to help somebody in a situation where they need medical care. Here is a summary of the Red Cross’s five steps, but it’s worth reading the detailed version, which you can print and keep in your bag or pocket:
Before administering care to an ill or injured person, size up the scene. Is it safe to approach? What may have happened? Who else is around to help?
If the person is awake, responsive and has no life-threatening bleeding, introduce yourself and ask permission to help them. Direct a bystander to grab supplies. Talk to the person, check them over and provide appropriate care.
If the person is not responsive, spend no more than five to ten seconds shouting their name, tapping them on the shoulder or foot and checking for breathing.
If the person is breathing, direct bystanders to call emergency and to grab an AED (if available) and first aid kit. Check the person over and ask bystanders for information.
If the person is not breathing, direct bystanders to call the emergency hotline and to grab an AED, then begin CPR.
A thing you’ll notice if you take a first aid or CPR class is that you often need help—you can’t call emergency and perform CPR at the same time, for example—but you can’t just shout at people in general and expect someone to respond. Look up, make eye contact with someone and point at them: You, call emergency.
Know how to stop the bleeding
Hopefully you won’t need to use this information, but if someone is bleeding in life threatening amounts—from a gunshot wound, for example—it’s important to know how to respond. Briefly: call emergency, find the source of the bleeding and apply pressure. If life-threatening bleeding is coming from an arm or leg, a tourniquet can save a life. (Yes, this advice may differ from what you learned years ago.)
Know how to stabilise injuries until you can get professional help
If somebody has an open wound, clean it if possible. Wash your hands, rinse the wound and pat it dry with something clean. (Flushing wounds is another job for the handy sport top water bottle you should be carrying anyway; ideally, keep a spare that you won’t be putting your mouth on.)
Replace any skin flaps and cover the wound with a clean bandage or dressing. If blood soaks through the dressing, don’t remove it; add more layers on top. You can read a more complete guide to wound care here.
Seek help if the wound doesn’t stop bleeding, if there is a foreign object embedded in it or if it is particularly large or deep.
For a broken bone, you’ll want to splint the bone to immobilise it without attempting to straighten the break. (That’s a job for the ER, not for first aid.) Seek medical help as soon as possible.
If a person has fallen in a way that may have caused an injury to the neck or spine, don’t move them. If somebody has been hit in the head, check for signs of a serious injury. There’s a more complete list of the signs here, but some of them include bleeding or fluid leaking from the nose or ears, pupils of unequal size, weakness in arms or legs, slurred speech and seizures. These indicate an injury that may require immediate medical help, so call emergency.
If a hit to the head results in milder symptoms like headaches or nausea, that person may not need immediate medical help but should still be checked out eventually, as these are signs of a concussion. (If you aren’t sure, seek help anyway.)
Supplies you should bring
Any first aid supplies can be helpful in an emergency. The Red Cross has a checklist for personal and family first aid kits. Some items that may come in particularly handy for helping others:
PPE such as gloves and a spare mask
Wound care supplies including gauze pads, bandages and tape
A squirt bottle filled with saline or water, for flushing eyes in case of tear gas or pepper spray exposure. Saline vials of 20 to 50 millilitres are appropriate for tear gas, notes the Riot Medicine handbook. Larger eyewash bottles are appropriate for pepper spray.
Scissors and tweezers
Emergency blankets (those silver foldy things) can help keep someone warm, which is helpful if they are wet after flushing eyes or wounds with water
Emergency medications for yourself if you already carry them, like an Epi-Pen or asthma rescue inhaler
Whatever happens, remember that the point of first aid is to be a first step, not the only step. If someone you’re with requires professional medical care, make sure to stay with them until they get the help they need.