Some years back, I came very close to committing a negligent homicide. I should clarify, however, that I was both the potential victim and the person responsible. I was a relatively young, new SWAT cop, and my tactical team was practicing rappelling. To be honest, however, the training wasn't very organized or safe. It was more like a speed contest to see how fast we could rappel down the side of the fire tower, unhook, run up the stairs and do it again.
Due to this and my inexperience, I forgot a basic rappelling truth: To be able to unhook from the rappel rope once you reach the ground, you first have to be physically attached to it. Needless to say, my descent was much faster than what I had anticipated.
Typically, prior to deployment, the rope is threaded through the top of what is called a figure-8 ring. A device called a locking carabineer is used to connect the SWAT operator (wearing a special rappel harness) to the bottom section of the ring. However, due to my haste and the lack of safety provisions in place during the training, I quickly realized I had neglected to hook the carabineer into the figure 8.
As I began my descent, gravity took control, and I did the "slide for life" down the rope. Despite my gloves, the rope burned the flesh off some of my fingers and the palms of my hands. As a bonus, my neck was too close to the rope as I descended. I ended up with another rope burn next to my throat that made me look like Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High.
I was moving pretty fast when I impacted the concrete below. Just prior to that, I had made a fleeting computation focused on the physics of "32 feet per second." I concluded that I was in serious trouble. Looking back on it now, I consider myself lucky to be alive. I did crush my right hand, which had to be surgically rebuilt. But based on the lethal alternative, I accept my fate.
Obviously, the lesson here is that my team wasn't properly focused on safety. No one was stationed at the top of the tower to inspect our rappel rigs before we went over the side. I almost paid a very heavy price because of this. And although I could try to point the finger at someone else, the truth is that it was my fault.
With that introduction, let's talk about safety in the training environment. It's clearly a topic we can't discuss too much. Whether conducting patrol training, SWAT or any other hands-on activity, there are two basic steps we should take in our training to ensure the safety of our students: designating a safety officer and establishing safety guidelines.
In California, designating a safety officer prior to the start of the training scenario is a practice that's gaining acceptance. The safety officer's role is to review the training agenda and examine the site for potential safety concerns to address before students start their drills. The safety officer has the authority to call an immediate halt to an exercise if a danger to the students is suspected or identified.
I suggest trainers select a safety officer who is a proactive problem solver. A safety officer should address a safety issue without hesitation. The individual should also have some level of experience as an instructor under their belt. You don't want to put a junior officer into this position, for example, because they may be less likely to act.
The safety officer should also be familiar with the training topic, so they can bring the proper perspective and critical safety focus. It would be ideal to designate another instructor as the safety officer. If you don't have enough qualified trainers on site, the safety officer should be someone who has strong knowledge of and experience with the training topic.
Instructors should establish a set of guidelines that safety officers, other instructors and students must follow. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) has identified safety guidelines as an important part of training plans that include hands-on activities. POST also publishes a document that's specifically designed to help instructors develop their own safety guidelines (available online at www.post.ca.gov/training). With these suggestions from POST, instructors can build their own specific set of training guidelines to reduce the potential for hazards and harm in law enforcement courses.
If your state has an organization similar to California POST, I suggest that you research that resource for relevant and established guidelines that are accepted in your region. If you don't have such a training organization in your area, you can search the Internet for information similar to what is offered in California POST.
The Five Elements
You should address five elements in your safety guidelines: instructors, students, facilities, equipment and emergencies.
This section of the safety guidelines should address your expectation of instructors. For example, the safety guidelines should mandate that instructors have the proper credentials. An agency may designate an officer to conduct training, but if it doesn't provide the requisite instructor training, there's no way to ensure the instructor knows the proper use of equipment, weapons, munitions, etc.
Guidelines should also require that instructors must be easily identifiable during the training. Instructors can wear unique uniforms, or T-shirts or vests with their name or other descriptors on them, such as "force tactics staff," "defensive tactics instructor" or even just "instructor."
Another component of the instructor's portion of the safety guidelines should address student-to-instructor ratios. The guidelines should outline how many students to one instructor is acceptable for the type of training being conducted.
Example: If classroom lecture is part of the overall training plan for hands-on skill training, it's clear this ratio can be relatively large. But during firearms training, where you're putting weapons or potentially injurious equipment into students' hands, the ratio should be much smaller. As a general rule, an acceptable ratio of students to instructors/safety officers is somewhere in the range of five to eight students to one instructor.
Safety guidelines should give specific directions to students and should be delivered prior to the start of training. In some cases, you may even want to provide students with a written copy of the guidelines/directions that they must sign and return to the staff to acknowledge they understand what is expected of them.
In this section of the safety guidelines, instruct students on what to do during weather-related issues that can affect their safety. Examples: If you're conducting outdoor training and a thunder storm begins, students should immediately seek shelter.
If you're conducting training on a very hot day, students must stay hydrated. The offshoot of this, of course, is addressing bathroom breaks. If during firearms or scenario-based training, students need to leave for this purpose, state whether students must check with an instructor before leaving the training scenario (so they and the condition of their weapons can be accounted for) or if they may leave without informing the instructor.
Safety guidelines may address concerns with facilities. Training facilities should be examined with a critical eye for possible hazards both prior to and during the training. Example: Mats for arrest and control training. Guidelines should mandate the mats are properly positioned away from walls and other obstacles as much as possible. The guidelines should also outline if the mats should be regularly swept/wiped down to maintain a clean and hygienic surface.
Some folks might think the latter is too much, but let's put this point into proper perspective: Cleaning the mats could prevent a student from contracting an illness or infection. Cleaning the mats during the training to remove collected sweat could prevent a student from slipping and being injured. Does it make sense to you, the instructor in charge? It does to me.
Inspection of and the use of equipment directly related to the well-being of the students should be a part of your safety guidelines. With defensive tactics, for example, this may include mandating the use of mouth guards. Inspecting handheld impact bags before their use could perhaps be another concern. When Simunitions or even paintball guns are used in scenario based training, your guidelines should mandate the use of proper safety equipment. During Simuntions, for example, Simunitions-specific masks should be worn by all participants, including instructors.
Along the same lines, regardless of type, the face mask, specifically the eye protection lens, should be inspected prior to use and after a direct impact. Cracks, even small ones, can develop in the lens. If they are not identified and the mask removed from the training, a student could potentially suffer eye injuries during future training.
Other considerations: In a live-fire range application, using an amplified PA system would be an asset for effectively communicating instructions and maintaining control. It may be a good idea to incorporate information about using this equipment into your safety guidelines. A handheld PA system would be of even greater value if you were conducting drills with diversionary devices or weapons use inside a live-fire shoot house. Providing the instructor (or safety officer) with the ability to project instructions above the noise of a live fire environment is a valuable asset.
This final category is an important element of any safety guidelines document. This part of the guidelines should require a safety briefing be conducted before the training begins. The briefing should address how to prevent harm to the students with basic rules (such as the cardinal rules of firearms training) and what to do if someone is injured.
The safety guidelines should also require instructors to identify qualified medical personnel with EMT or paramedic credentials on staff or in the class. As a basic requirement, the guidelines should require instructors to have up-to-date first aid/ CPR certifications.
Safety guidelines should also mandate the presence of an extensive medical trauma kit on site, as well as when appropriate a cervical collar and backboard.
The trauma kit should be easy to locate in an open space and pointed out to all participants. Going one step further, I suggest that trainers place the kit at the base of a stand with the American flag attached so it can be located rapidly from anywhere in the training environment when needed.
California POST also suggests that as part of the emergency requirements, each participant student and instructors fill out some form of emergency medical information form. This should be kept on scene rather than filed at some off-site location. The best solution I've found is that after being reviewed for any red flags or lack of information, the completed forms (clipped together in alphabetical order) be placed inside the trauma kit. These forms should include the following information: name; age; recent medical history (e.g., knee injuries or surgeries); relevant allergies, such as penicillin, bee stings, etc.; immediate supervisor contact information; and the contact information of a close relative or friend, including cell phone numbers if possible.
Identify the location of the nearest emergency department or trauma center in your safety guidelines. Having a well marked map sitting in a designated emergency transportation vehicle is a good idea as well. It's also a smart move to have the keys for the vehicle in the ignition, on the dashboard or somewhere they can be easily located, as opposed to in someone's pocket.
Finally, consider requiring familiarization with communication options at the training site. Example: The guidelines may require that instructors ensure the telephone landline is in working order or verify cell phone coverage. If your cell phone has "no bars," it would be good to know that before the start of training. In such a case, another instructor or student may have a different provider and does have coverage at the location.
One of the best methods for off-site communication is to have your department radio available. The more effectively you can communicate a problem or injury to emergency first responders, the quicker they'll arrive with the right treatment.
Hopefully, this has planted in your minds the need for formal safety guidelines. I feel so strongly about this that I'll be glad to share some more examples with you. E-mail me, and as time permits, I'll get them to you.
As an instructor, one of my worst fears is that a student may get hurt on my watch, and you should share this concern. Although we can't control their every move, we can use safety guidelines in combination with good instructors and even a safety officer to minimize the possibility of bad things happening.
If you don't have guidelines in place, realize any flawed safety practices or accidents during the training will be scrutinized after an incident. Your training will be examined under a micro scope and you can be held liable.
To this point, a phrase comes to mind: "Common sense is not always common." In the context of preventing injuries and avoiding subsequent legal proceedings with you named as the "defendant," the implementation of training safety guidelines just makes good common sense.