By Mark V. Lonsdale
Over the years I have worked and trained with numerous teams tasked with a variety of public safety needs ranging from SWAT and high risk warrants to search & rescue and underwater recovery. Many of these teams had specialized equipment, impressive vehicles, and numerous team members, all claiming to be “ready to respond” to the community’s needs. Unfortunately, on all too many occasions, when we ran actual or simulated call-outs, I witnessed disappointing results with both teams and individuals whose readiness was less than acceptable or professional.
Some of the problems that contributed to this lack of readiness have included:
- An inability to contact team members in an expedient manner
- Individuals not carrying or checking their pagers or cell phones (back when we all carried pagers)
- Equipment that was not pre-packaged for rapid deployment
- Vehicles that would not start, flat batteries, or they could not find the keys
- Critical pieces of equipment that were down for maintenance with no redundancy (extras)
- Equipment that was rusted and corroded because of no structured preventive maintenance program (PMP)
- Radios and lights with dead batteries
- Night Vision Equipment that was inoperable
- Gas masks with no replacement filters
- Weapons that were not zeroed
- Team members not thoroughly trained for the type of mission
- Individuals with substandard clothing for the weather conditions
- Individuals who had forgotten critical pieces of personal kit
- Individuals in a poor state of personal fitness
- Drivers getting lost en route to an incident or target location
- Helicopter pilots inserting teams into the wrong grid reference
- Commanders lacking tactical training and the qualifications to run an incident command center (ICS)
- A general inability to make an effective response plan
- Teams and CP on different frequencies
- Snipers completely missing the target because of poor ability, incorrect scope settings, or changes in ammunition without re-zeroing
- A need to depend on personal cellular phones because agency radios did not work or batteries were flat
So what does it mean to be operationally ready?
When an individual becomes involved in public safety, whether it is fire, rescue, or tactical response, he or she is assuming a significant responsibility to the response team, the agency, and to the general public. The individual must be ready to respond in a professional and efficient manner which entails more than just a cool uniform and a bag of new equipment. Operational readiness requires a commitment to personal fitness, regular training, minimum skills standards, equipment maintenance, and a positive attitude towards being accessible and available for a call-out.
Similarly, a tactical team bears a significant responsibility to respond quickly and effectively to protect life. Team readiness encompasses several key areas beginning with the readiness of every individual on the team, then flowing down through administration, transportation, maintenance, operational procedures, communications, logistics, leadership, and command & control. To cover all these in detail would fill an entire book, but some of the more common problems that hinder a team’s ability to respond in a professional manner should be mentioned.
US SAR team on a mission in Taiwan searching for a missing American student
Even though the LE agency bears the responsibility to select only qualified members for the team, the individual member must also shoulder the responsibility of being an asset and not a liability on operations. This begins with maintaining a high level of personal health and fitness – including eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting adequate rest, and avoiding cigarettes and excessive alcohol. A team member who is in poor physical condition and/or a regular drinker cannot be depended upon to respond quickly, physically or mentally prepared to save lives.
Whether using pagers or cell phones the individual must make himself available and accessible, plus have a mechanism to be removed from the call-out roster when no available.
Upon joining a tactical team, each member is issued many thousands of dollars worth of mission-essential clothing and equipment that must be maintained. The clothing and equipment becomes the responsibility of the user but it does not end there. The individual must gain proficiency with every piece of equipment and then maintain it in a high state of readiness. On several occasions I have witnessed team members rooting around in their bags, packs, and cars looking for a piece of critical equipment that they had forgotten or misplaced. This can be avoided only through the use of mission-essential checklists and go-bags that are inventoried, packed, and ready to deploy. After each training session or operational deployment, all equipment must be cleaned, dried, checked for function and packed ready for the next call-out. Damaged equipment must be repaired and missing or broken items must be immediately replaced.
Personal readiness and equipment readiness is both a state-of-mind and a state-of-being. Every piece of equipment should be considered “life support” and be treated accordingly. Taking pride in one’s fitness, training, equipment and its readiness is the mark of a true professional.
When an agency or group identifies the need for a special response team they must first ensure that they have the budget and personnel to support such a capability. For an agency to form a SWAT team when they do not have a pool of fit and motivated officers or the budget to equip them would be foolish. To attempt to maintain this team without adequate training would be frustrating; and to launch this team lacking the necessary safety equipment and training would be negligent.
The agency has the responsibility to provide teams with the best personal safety equipment and mission-essential tools and weapons to do their job in a safe and professional manner. However, equipment is of little use without professional training to a nationally recognized standard.
The two individuals who bear the greatest practical responsibility on a team are the Team Leader and the Training Officer, since it is their job to ensure all members are proficient in every aspect of the team’s tasking. Unlike good equipment, which is a non-recurring cost, good training is the single biggest recurring cost for rescue and tactical teams. This cost may be compounded by the fact that many teams, such as New York’s ESU, are multi-mission tasked requiring additional training in everything from tactical operations to diving to high angle rescue.
Multi-mission teams incur a significant expense and commitment to both training and equipment. Every officer or deputy may be a SWAT trained officer cross-trained in Tac-Med, mountain rescue, helicopter rescue, and diving recovery operations. Similarly, even a basic mountain rescue team must be trained and equipped for emergency medicine, technical rope rescue, wilderness search, swift water rescue, snow and ice techniques, avalanche rescue, glacier travel, and crevasse rescue.
Even with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding, tactical teams frequently find themselves strapped for time and funds for professional training, often taking two years just to cycle through all the necessary training modules. Each operator must be trained in handgun, shotgun, submachine gun, patrol rifle, close quarter shooting, breaching, entry tactics, room clearing, distraction/stun munitions, gas deployment, baton and defensive tactics, operational scouting and planning, sniper and counter sniper, tactical communications, emergency medicine, rappelling, helicopter deployment, Immediate Action drills, officer down rescue drills, hostage rescue, IED/booby-trap identification, camouflage and concealment, vehicle ambush, bus and train assault, aircraft take-down, rural operations, maritime operations, witness and dignitary protection, and the list goes on.
Active shooter response has added an additional element of speed and response time, requiring a high level of individual and team readiness
Another area that is all too often neglected in both rescue and tactical response is vehicle maintenance. This begins with personally owned vehicles (POV) that cannot be relied upon to make it to the headquarters when called upon. Personal transportation should be late model vehicles that are reliable, well maintained, and kept gassed above half a tank. Tires should also be in good shape, correctly inflated and all fluid levels routinely checked and maintained. If local conditions include dirt roads or snow in winter then team members should seriously consider opting for personal four-wheel drive vehicles.
Team trucks and vehicles are even more of a problem since they are often not driven on a regular basis. When needed, batteries are found to be dead, tire pressures are low, trailer hitches are rusted and seized, spare tires are missing, and there is a general deterioration of condition. In reality, a vehicle that is driven regularly and maintained is often in better shape mechanically than the response vehicle that is used infrequently.
To get passed this problem, team members must be assigned to maintain the vehicles, start and drive them on a regular basis to keep the fluids circulating, and to keep the vehicles gassed and serviced. The same is true for all other equipment such as compressors, generators, lighting systems, navigational equipment, radios, special weapons, diving equipment, boats and any equipment that comes in contacts with salt water in particular.
To wrap this up, no one wants to be the chump who is a liability to the team, and nobody wants to be on a team that comes off looking unprofessional when the call comes down. Special response teams are often the elite of an agency eating up a significant portion of the agency’s training and equipment budget. To earn that status and budget, the team only has to do one thing – to come through as the professionals they are expected to be.
We all live for that call, and we all want to be there on game-day, so it is important to ensure that you are the professional that you aspire to be. The best way to do that is to maintain a professional level of readiness, including a high degree of personal fitness; quality, well-maintained weapons and equipment; above average skills through frequent and realistic training; and being available and accessible on short notice. Now go check your gear, pack your go-bags, carry your cell phone, hit the gym, and wait for the call.