This is the second in a series of articles focusing on developing the skills and abilities of incident commanders. In the first article, I asked you to take on the role of helping to develop the members of your agency who might have to lead and make sound decisions during a critical incident.
Before we continue with this topic, I want to sympathize with your position. I fully realize this may be a relatively new topic for many of you. Bottom line: If there’s a clear need for such training at your shop, you need to get training and thinking. Even if you just copy these articles, pass them around and try to foster some discussion, you’re headed in the right direction. There’s also a wealth of information out there beyond these columns that you can seek out.
That said, class is now back in session!
First off, establish and communicate to all personnel who the incident commander is. This should be shared with dispatch at the station, as well as personnel who are on scene and on their way to assist. In addition, if someone else takes over in this capacity, that change should be communicated as well as documented. The naming of the incident commander must be accompanied by broadcasts pinpointing the command post’s location—especially important if the CP is moved.
A three-pronged training framework will help teach incident commanders how to manage a critical event. Often, all three are handled by one person—the field supervisor, who is now also the incident commander—because there’s no one else available. But if it’s large-scale, with even a hint of a substantial impact on the community, then a more structured response with the commitment of more personnel will be expected. If it’s a significant event, then the agency’s NIMS (National Incident Management System) protocols or similar procedures should be implemented as soon as possible. Of course, there are a number of other moving parts to such an organizational approach, but I suggest at least an initial focus on the following three functions at the command post.
The first function is operations. Simply put, operations are at the heart of the solution. What steps are we going to take to get things back to normal? In some cases, the incident commander may handle this duty, but as more personnel become available, the assignment of a competent individual to the operations responsibilities becomes important.
As the event unfolds, the incident commander will need to focus on the big-picture aspects of resolving the problem. The operations officer develops the courses of action (what we call plans) and provides the incident commander with decision-making suggestions and guidance.
An important training point: When possible, personnel tasked with developing proposed courses of action should provide the incident commander with various options that may lead to the “end state.” Example: When considering a tactical intervention during a hostage taking event like a bank robbery gone bad, the incident commander should be able to choose from a variety of options: a full-on assault through the front door, attempts at negotiations, a “stealth-to-contact” approach through an alternate door, or even an assault capitalizing on multiple breach points (doors and windows), using both full- and limited-penetration techniques. Whatever plans are approved by the incident commander, they should be relatively simple, flexible and shared as much as possible with those who will implement them.
Above all, the steps taken must be safe and reasonable. The word reasonable is very influential in police work today. It applies to critical incidents as much as it does to use-of-force options. In this context, Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) is a relevant guideline.
Examples: Absent extreme circumstances, it wouldn’t be a reasonable plan for the SWAT team to arrive on scene and then carry out an immediate assault on the home of a barricaded suspect. Typically, we establish a perimeter and try to negotiate his surrender. By way of comparison, it would be very reasonable to expect our patrol officers to immediately respond to an active shooter incident by forming a contact team and aggressively closing to stop the suspect’s actions.
Gather Good Intel
Clearly, in order to develop successful plans, you must have good, relevant information. Intelligence is, then, the second function at the command post. This responsibility may rest with an individual assigned to look at information coming in from various sources and distill it into useful facts and common-sense assumptions.
The intelligence role is a difficult assignment. Information will be disjointed, skewed and even contradictory. This officer must accept the fact that they won’t be able to learn everything they may want to about the suspect, the location and the overall conditions. The intelligence officer must look at what is known at the time and develop an assessment—even if it’s of the SWAG variety (Scientific Wild Ass Guess)—of what facts are relevant and important. They should then use common sense and sound decision-making to reach conclusions regarding what constitutes tactically useful information. Partnering with the operations officer, this will allow for the development of realistic plans that can be presented to the incident commander for a decision.
To one degree or another, relevant intelligence must be shared with the personnel responding. There’s a simple way of accomplishing this without the intel officer having to repeatedly brief officers as they arrive for assignments: briefing boards. Positioned outside or next to the command post, these allow responding officers to learn what’s going on with minimal intrusion upon the functioning of the command post. Marking pens used in combination with butcher paper or even the blank side of firearms targets work well—as long as you have someone assigned to post this info. (Dry erase boards work even better but can be cumbersome. An alternative is to purchase soft-sided, roll up dry erase sheets.)
The briefing boards are usually the responsibility of a “scribe,” who’s tasked with placing information on the briefing boards, as well as documenting significant events and decisions. Typically, this falls to dispatchers or clerical personnel. However, traffic officers are often well suited to this task because they regularly print information in a neat, legible manner and are already experienced in diagramming locations.
Whatever form of briefing board you use, the intelligence officer must archive the information before it’s erased or lost. Not only that, dry erase boards can be erroneously wiped clean, and during a windy day, a breeze might remove sheets taped to the side of a vehicle without your permission.
Taking pictures of the briefing board from time to time throughout the incident creates quick, retrievable documentation. This will be helpful both at the command post and for the inevitable report writing and legal exposure. Using a cell phone or digital camera is fast and easy.
Where’s the Pizza?
Finally, the management of a critical incident requires personnel to watch out for the overall logistical needs. Although this may not be as pressing—or as testosterone driven—as the operations and intelligence functions, it’s still important.
Logistics can run the full spectrum of all things operational and tactical. Hooking up the command post vehicle to electricity and phone lines, setting up the briefing boards for responding officers, providing crime scene tape and finding extra chemical munitions after the department’s supply has been drained—all are examples of this function.
Even arranging for food and water for the troops—and not just for command staff!—is a logistical responsibility. Anyone who’s ever been on the front lines during an extended SWAT call out and then returns to the command post hungry, only to find a stack of empty pizza boxes knows why I list this as an important task.
Make a Plan
As mentioned above, a significant component for training incident commanders is the development of plans. As an incident unfolds these documents can provide us with directions and a common operational picture of what we’ll do.
Originally, I thought of plans in only one context. But listening to Sid Heal (see the November issue, p. 58, “The Tactical Evangelist”), I learned there’s much more to them. Generally speaking, there are at least three types of plans: detailed, hasty (or emergency) and contingency.
Depending upon the circumstances, a detailed plan may be developed before or during an operation. This is the basic game plan intended to take us towards achieving our goal of resolving the incident. I helped draft a number of these during my career, and they ran the gamut from simple to complex. Depending upon the variables, they can be written and implemented in a matter of a few hours, or they can take months of preparatory work but perhaps never be used to their fullest extent.
When an unanticipated event starts up, however, a hasty plan becomes necessary in the first stages. It’s basically thrown together on the fly in response to unfolding events.
Example: The quick positioning of a react team near the door of a hostage situation. Or the immediate assignment of officers to evacuate a neighborhood minutes after a fast moving wildfire has been reported nearby.
Although they’re predicated on rapidly developing events, hasty plans can be better implemented if law enforcement takes a look at predictable scenarios that might suddenly appear and develops some general guidelines. These should then be passed on to the troops through training. Discussion of what to do if a civilian or officer is severely wounded and needs to be rescued as soon as possible would be a good example of how we can train for a hasty plan event.
The third type of plan is based on recognizing that our detailed operational intent may not exactly go the way we want it to. Someone probably forgot to tell the suspect that he has to follow our playbook. So we may have to fall back on options we’ve kept in reserve. These are contingency plans. They may include mutual aid if the situation goes for an extended period, taking you beyond your agency’s capabilities.
Whenever possible, the time to start thinking about and asking for mutual aid is before you need it. Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed. Examples: Having the fire department on standby prior to the introduction of chemical agents or flashbangs into a location and establishing a reunification site for parents should children have to be evacuated from a school after an active shooter incident.
A good way of training for a critical incident with minimal impact is to develop table-top scenarios. I’m sure that challenging events have taken place in your jurisdiction. Use these as a
framework to provide realistic training opportunities.
You can also take scenarios from news broadcasts and the Internet. Creating and using scenarios from such circumstances can be a great learning tool.
Don’t make them too difficult. You don’t want the failure factor to have too much influence over the training goals. Start simple and then work up to complex examples that involve maps, ground level photos of buildings and even satellite images from sites like Google Earth to make it more realistic. It will do some good.
We’re going to leave it at that for now. The final chapter in this discussion will focus on risk management and related topics. As always, my goal is to help you succeed with your training, and risk management is a critical element that can’t be left out.
Trio to Train on
A three-pronged approach to help the incident commander
Train your officers to be ready to fill one of three roles as they assist in the management of a major incident.
Operations Officer: This should be a very competent person who is capable of managing the overall process of resolving the incident.
Intel Officer: This person gathers and filters all relevant information for the operations officer, providing clear, common-sense pictures of what’s going on. The intel officer should also share key information with responding personnel and dispatch.
Logistics Officer: This is the person who handles the tangibles: power to the command center, food for the responding officers, extra munitions as necessary, setting up information boards, etc.
3 Types of Plans
Detailed: Usually thought out ahead of time or during the operation. They deal with the nitty-gritty and can require considerable time to produce.
Hasty: As the event unfolds, things will happen that you might not have accounted for at all. Hence, the hasty plan—a plan of action that deals with the unexpected as it happens.
Contingency: An event will have unpredictable ways that it can unfold. But some aspects can be anticipated and addressed through contingency plans. Consider these as options for when the unpredictable happens.