How to Move Someone in an Emergency 

Dietrich Easter

Curious about how to move someone during an emergency? It’s easy – you just toss them over your shoulder, as seen in all the movies, and run like crazy, right? Wrong! In this article, we’ll talk about an often-overlooked side of emergency care. Patient movement. 

During an emergency, there are several things to consider before you move a patient. First, is there an immediate environmental threat to their lives? Such as fire, flooding, or an incoming train. Second, does the patient’s condition warrant movement. Finally, should you perform lifesaving treatments, like airway or bleeding control before moving them?

In the next paragraphs, we’ll talk about what you should know about moving an injured person. Then, we’ll list five techniques you can use to move someone during an emergency.


Legal Concerns about Moving Patients in an Emergency

Before we talk about when you should or should not carry a person during an emergency, know this: this article should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always seek professional training and refer to your local laws. 

With that said, we will talk about patient movement from a first responders’ perspective, and when and why the decision is made to move or leave the patient in place. 

One last thing – some people are afraid to move a patient (even when they know they should) because they are afraid of being sued. Now, this should not be taken as concrete medical advice, but there are things called Good Samaritan laws in many states. These laws essentially protect civilians who acted with good faith when trying to help someone.

If you can, familiarize yourself with local laws, and remember the golden rule: do onto others as you’d want them to do to you.


Ways First Responders move Someone in an Emergency 

We’ll assume that you’ve decided to move someone, but now you’re wondering how to do it. 

First, let’s talk about how first responders move patients – this will give you some idea of the approach. Then, we’ll talk about some techniques for patient movement that anyone can use. 

Here are some tools the pros use: 

  • Backboards 

  • KED boards

Let’s go into more detail below. 


The Backboard 

Backboards are long, wide, and flat board that is placed under a patient. The patient is then strapped to the backboard, allowing multiple responders to use the handles on the edges of the backboard to lift the patient. 

The backboard has, historically, been used for two main purposes. 

First, as an extrication tool. For example, a patient might be far out in a field and the responders need to carry them a distance to the ambulance. In this case, it would be easier to strap the patient to the backboard and use multiple people to carry them, then to try to carry the person with nothing.

Second, the backboard has been used for suspected injuries to the spinal cord. The thinking goes that the backboard would help stabilize the spine, similar to how a spine stabilized a broken leg. However, using the backboard explicitly for this purpose has fallen out of favor in many health systems.


KED Board

If the patient is trapped in a vehicle, the responders might use something called a KED board. These are almost like a mini backboard, but they are flexible, and only secure the patient from the head to the torso. These can be strapped around the patient and then used to pull them out of a vehicle. 

Finally, first responders will often use some type of sheet to move patients. This technique is often used for carrying a patient a short distance when the patient has no risk of spinal cord injury. These sheets, often known as Smith Cots, transport litters, or mega movers, are essentially a durable tarp with handles attached. 

On top of these methods, there are some other techniques first responders use to carry patients without tools. Many of the techniques can also be used by civilians to move someone during an emergency. 


Ways You Can Move Someone During an Emergency 

Now that we’ve talked about how responders use tools to move patients, and some of the reasoning behind the patient movement, let’s look at some techniques for moving patients without any equipment. 


Here are five ways you can move someone in an emergency: 

  1. Shoulder drag 

  2. Clothing drag 

  3. Leg drag  

  4. Sheet drag 

  5. Harness and litter 


Let’s look at these in more depth. If you'd like more pictures of these techniques and a deeper analysis, see this PDF on moving patients. 


Shoulder Drag 

The shoulder drag might be the most intuitive. If the person isn’t too large, you can stand behind them and hook your arms underneath their shoulders. For some people, to ensure the person doesn’t slip away, you can grab their wrists after placing your arms under theirs. From this position, you can pull them across the floor, away from dangers. 

 The risks: If the person is large, this can be difficult for one person. Also, since you are walking backward there is the risk of tripping. This should only be used in an emergency. 


Clothing Drag  

Some people might be able to get more leverage by just grabbing the clothing of the person, around their shoulders. This allows you to pull on their shirt and drag them to safety. When done properly, there should be no pressure on the person's neck, all pressure should be directed at the underarms. 

In some cases, it may be necessary to drag from the pantlegs. This all depends on the situation. 


Leg Drag 

As we touched on in the last section, there may be times when you need to briefly move someone by pulling on their pant legs. It could be that you’re alone and you’re unable to access their upper body. Or it could be that the person is slumped into a corner.

In any case, to perform this maneuver, you either grab the person by the ankles and pull them, or you can try grabbing the leg of their pants. This is not an ideal method by any means, and once the person is safe, it’s important to switch to another method. 


Sheet Drag to Move a Patient to Safety 

A sheet is a powerful thing. In an emergency, it can help you move someone to safety. There are two ways this works. 

First, you can carefully roll the patient on their side while stabilizing any broken bones and slide the sheet underneath them. Then, roll them back and pull the ends of the sheet to move them. Just be careful they don’t slip off. 

Second, you could roll the sheet up to make a rough rope and then wrap the rope underneath their shoulders. Now you can pull them to safety, similar to the clothing drag method. This technique is sometimes used to pull a patient out of a ditch or a burning vehicle, as it’s quick and effective. 

Of course, ensure you get training before attempting any of these maneuvers. 


Use a Litter or Harness 

Sometimes, first responders will carry a small litter (sometimes called a stokes basket) that makes it easier to extricate patients from austere environments. They may also carry products like a simple transport litter or a product like the hasty harness

The hasty harness is a simple and durable strap that allows first responders and firefighters to rapidly move patients in an emergency. If you’re curious about how this product works, you can look at this video on moving a patient with a hasty harness. 

As you might imagine, the ways to move a patient during an emergency are almost endless. Patients can end up in some odd situations, requiring responders to get creative. As a final note, it’s often helpful (if you have the time) to ask a patient if they have any ideas on how they should be moved – sometimes they have the best ideas. 


What if You Can't Move the Patient? 

If you can't move the patient in an emergency, always do your best to keep their airway clear and control bleeding. Both bleeding control and airway management should be performed before, during, and after you move a patient. 

Also, call for help early and often.


Should You Move a Person in an Emergency Situation?

The real question is when should you move someone in an emergency? Well, as you might expect, the number of potential situations and the nuances of each of those situations are endless. Answers aren’t cut and dry. 

At the end of the day, try to do the right thing. If you see someone who needs help, help them. The best way to help make this decision is to get professional training.

After you place yourself in various scenarios and talked with professionals who have moved thousands of patients during emergencies, you’ll be in the best position to decide how to move or care for someone during an emergency. If you’d like, you can watch this video about moving patients. 


Final note: Keep in mind that protocols and procedures change rapidly in the medical field. Take nothing in this article as medical advice and understand that the techniques listed in this article may become outdated in time. Do your best to stay up to date on your local laws and emergency protocols.