Tragedy is often unexpected. We don’t plan or prepare to face a masked shooter stalking the aisles of a darkened movie theater. Often, victims of this type of violence can only react and do their best to survive. And while there is little light at the end of this tunnel, a brief glimpse can be found in the knowledge that someone is ready, prepared and trained to help those caught in the line of fire.

NAPH members the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) and Denver Health were among the hospitals that received victims of the July 20 mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. According to a UCH Insider article, even though off-hour, weekend timing meant the hospital’s resources were at its lowest point, “a hastily assembled, well-trained and determined hospital-wide team met the challenge, delivering lifesaving care, ministering to the emotional needs of the victims’ families and friends and continuing to care for the patients already hospitalized at the time of the shooting and those who arrived for care later in the day.”

The Insider article describes the range of challenges hospital staff faced in managing this crisis, and the key reactions that enabled them to save all but one victim – who arrived at UCH already dead. A quick organizational response brought roughly 50 additional staff to the hospital within an hour. Cooperation among various services and a willingness to take on unfamiliar tasks added to rapid treatment. And early anticipation of needs ensured ample supplies, security and spiritual care for victims and families.

While the ability to assess and respond to needs in such swift manner is worthy of note, it’s a skill long developed in safety net hospitals, such as UCH and Denver Health. In fact, trauma care—highly specialized emergency and intensive care administered to critically ill and injured patients—is among the most important services safety net hospitals offer.

The latest NAPH annual member characteristics report, America’s Safety Net Hospitals and Health Systems, 2010, found that NAPH members represent 37 percent of the level 1 trauma care and 57 percent of the burn care beds in the 10 largest U.S. cities. In 31 communities nationwide, NAPH members are either the only level 1 trauma center or the only trauma center of any level. As such, NAPH members have long been first receivers for catastrophes – both natural and man-made. They are uniquely positioned to be leaders in emergency preparedness and to respond directly to mass casualty events.

Tragedy is certain to occur again – witness the even more recent shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin – and victims and their families will continue to search for peace and hope in the aftermath. But we can take solace in the knowledge that America’s safety net hospitals remain at the ready, dedicated to serving all of us when we need them most.