S.W.A.T. stands for Special Weapons and Tactics, implying a special level of training and weaponry for the team members. When we hear that a SWAT team has been deployed, we know that a serious law-enforcement-required incident and threat to public safety has occurred, which may be beyond the scope of the typical police department or first responder.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has the reputation of creating the first SWAT teams in the USA, but Philadelphia coined the Special Weapons and Tactics phrase first, in 1964. Philly established a large team whose sole responsibility was to combat the rising number of bank robberies in the city, hoping to stop them in progress. LAPD organized their own program around the same time, but the focus was different, using their teams during civil unrest and riots, when people attacked police and attempted to overwhelm them from all sides.
SWAT team members always have experience in other agencies or departments before applying to and being accepted into this specialized arena.
Depending on the needs of the towns/counties, SWAT teams are larger or smaller, relative to the size and needs of the rest of the police force. The Wichita Falls, Texas, Police Department SWAT Team members are trained in everything from Hostage Rescue to Dignitary Protection during a 60 hour basic SWAT school. Wichita Falls has a little over 200 sworn officers, with a SWAT team of 18. The Wisconsin department we observed was a 40 person department, with a SWAT team of 10, including two snipers.
A SWAT team is called out for:
The team’s mission is to save lives. A hostage rescue is the most complex and the most man power intensive of the possible assignments. The goal is to end it sooner rather than later. If there is no hostage in the house, with just one person in an isolated place, then a negotiator might be used, since the safety of others and time considerations would not generally be a factor.
The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) sets the standard for the country for the management and protocols in a hostage situation. The participants are identified and divided into categories:
The civilians are cleared out before a SWAT assault begins. Other jurisdictions may be called in to help. Past experience has shown that in situations like school shootings or bank robberies where a number of people are involved, everyone, including small children, is asked to leave the building with hands up in the air. This way, the law enforcement groups on the scene will know that the children have nothing hidden in their hands and/or are not being used to create more chaos or danger for the waiting crowd(s).
It’s important to note that school patrol personnel might have been employed a few years ago to keep drug dealers off the campus just by their very presence, without any expectation of violent confrontation. Now, more and more often, they are being trained in active shooter scenarios in order to be pro-active in the minutes before a SWAT team can arrive.
A SWAT team member’s mindset:
The men and women in SWAT have a warrior mindset and are confident in the fact that they will get the job done, that they are the best candidates for the job, and they are not afraid of being under fire. For a set period of time (6-12 months in various departments) after training, Field Training Officers (FTO) guide rookie SWAT officers through the many different scenarios that may occur. Team members are always ready for the callout, so training is intense and constant. If the team stays trained and never gets called upon, that can be tough on morale – “when am I going to be able to show what I can do?” It’s like a fine-tuned machine that never gets used. In big cities, that would never be an issue, but in smaller, less populated areas with fewer SWAT-needed situations, it might become a factor.
Many of today’s police departments have a greater social work component to hostage situations than in the past, so a hostage negotiator gets involved before SWAT starts knocking down doors. Often, negotiators are specifically assigned to the SWAT teams.
There is a certain gender bias that women must fight against in the job, mostly because it is thought by some that a woman may not be strong enough or tough minded enough to carry through in a hostile situation. The capability to shoot is never in question, but sometimes the willingness to shoot is a factor in the negative thinking. The physical tests are not adjusted in most jurisdictions, so women must do the same pushups and gear carries that men do. In truth, women perform valuable functions on the SWAT teams in the roles of negotiators, even if they can’t pass the physicality tests to breach buildings. In general, women have been found to be more observant, better at interviewing than some men, and more emotionally aware at a crime scene, valuable attributes for negotiators.
If negotiations fail, and/or the hostages are at risk of being injured or killed, more aggressive methods are used.
Unless a police department is headquartered in a big city, SWAT teams are often part-time, coming together as a unit when needed, perhaps once a month. However, training continues whether there is a case or not. It’s important for safety and efficiency for the team to train as a group on a regular basis – In Neenah, Wisconsin’s case, they train together for about 16 hours a month.
A team might be shared by other towns in a county, and the home town team members often perform other duties within the department until required for a bank robbery or other kind of hostage scenario. There just isn’t enough money in the budget for a small town to support a team they only need occasionally, but when SWAT is required, it’s essential that they be highly trained. It’s smart to share that capability.
Training, training, always training
You may have noticed photos of law enforcement officers on the front lines carrying large shields. The men carrying those shields must have excellent upper body strength, since they have to carry the shield in place with one hand and a rifle (or baton) in ready-to-fire position in the other. Try keeping your arms chest high in front of you, bent at the elbows, while holding ten pound weights in each hand. How long can you do it continuously without getting tired or losing focus?
Physical Fitness training needs to be done on their own time, and SWAT members make sure it gets done. Their lives and those of their team may depend on maintaining that strength, agility, and split second timing while carrying the 25-65 pound gear/equipment in all kinds of weather during attack or defensive actions.
A typical practice for snipers includes (while carrying a 25 pound pack)
Followed by a 2 minute break then (perhaps) 40 overhead lifts of that pack in 2 minutes.
Then, a two minute break followed by holding a plank position for 80 seconds.
Then, a standing broad jump of 6-7 feet, followed by a two minute break.
Then, a timed 1/4 mile run with the pack on the back.
Then, they repeat the whole routine in reverse.
*Many thanks to the Neenah, Wisconsin SWAT team members who shared their knowledge and experiences during a Writers’ Police Academy session held in Wisconsin.
Next up: “SWAT Equipment and Strategies”
(WARNING: Some photos may be upsetting to some people.)
Last month, Sheila and I had a chance to attend a simulation with law enforcement, firefighters, EMS professionals, and students in action at a multi-casualty accident scene. We saw how their skills are tested when a drunk driver runs a traffic light and smashes into a yard sale, killing and maiming several people.
How do the EMS, firefighters, and police learn to work together to handle the horrific scene? They practice, in demonstrations just like this one.
Typically, an onlooker at an accident calls 911, gives whatever details are available – location of the accident, number of people injured, whether or not there is more than one car involved. Rarely are the callers calm and collected, but the dispatcher has to keep his/her cool, no matter how bad it sounds. The information is passed on to the agencies that can help and usually, the closest one to the accident site responds.
The First Responder assesses the accident, notifies Dispatch as to what other help may be needed, and establishes a perimeter. In this scenario, the First Responder was a deputy from the Sheriff’s Department.
He took a look at the scene, called for backup, made some decisions, checked to see who was still alive, and helped those he could while he waited.
Fire and Rescue arrived at the scene next.
The driver of the car did not appear to be injured, was not pinned inside, and no gasoline was leaking from anywhere, but the Firefighters were needed to lift the car off two victims who were trapped underneath it. One was ‘dead,’ but one was still alive.
The Firefighters used a Hurst Spreader (commonly known as the ‘jaws of life’) in addition to assorted chocks and lumber in order to stabilize the car before pulling the victims free.
Standard procedure indicates that after the initial assessment and after additional help has arrived, law enforcement takes care of the driver issues and rescue takes care of the victims. Law enforcement continues to help where needed.
A Breathalyzer test was administered to the driver, since the road was not wet, and there was no other apparent reason for him to plow into a front yard full of people. Witness statements were taken from those involved at the scene. Onlookers were kept at a safe distance throughout the simulation.
The ambulances arrived and EMS workers evaluated the injured people.
While cries of “Please help us,” and “She needs help,” were heard continuously in the background, one of the EMS workers assigned black, red and yellow tags to the victims.
Yellow tag: broken bones, but alert
Red tag: will die if not treated immediately, still breathing on own
Black tag: not breathing
After the car was elevated, the person underneath was pulled out, strapped onto a stretcher, then transported to the hospital.
EMS workers enlisted the aid of lightly injured victims and urged them to talk to the more seriously hurt. Keeping the injured awake and alert was an important part of assessment. If the victims lost consciousness, or had slurred speech, then they went to the head of the line for treatment and transport.
One of the EMS gals told us later that it’s not unusual to have to talk people into leaving others behind in order to get help for themselves at the hospital. Some victims appear to be fine, but wander around the area in confusion and shock, unaware of cuts and more serious injuries of their own.
One of the victims who kept crying out for help for others, eventually collapsed, was put on backboard and then lifted to a gurney for transport.
The last victim was treated and transported, the driver was arrested and taken to jail and all that remained was the cleanup. The firefighters took off their jackets, gathered their gear and re-stowed it in the rescue truck.
What was the difference between this simulation and the explosion simulation we witnessed last year? That one included unknown perpetrators and a continuing threat that widened from the campus to the airport and public transportation. Both law enforcement and EMS personnel gathered evidence at the scene (which in some cases was embedded in the victims).
At the Yard Sale simulation, the evidence collected was in the form of photos of the scene, the Breathalyzer test, as well as witness statements from onlookers and victims. The threat was specific to the scene and dealt with.
Both were crime scenes, but played out quite differently.
As we saw last year at the explosion simulation, the three groups at the ‘Yard Sale’ were professional and took the simulation seriously. Their interaction appeared seamless and we were impressed by the way they worked near each other in order to complete their assigned tasks and then jumped in to help each other when needed. Well done!
*Photos by Patti Phillips, except one.
All taken at Guilford County Community College, in North Carolina.
*Photo taken and shared by Terry Odell, writer. Thanks! Follow her blog and find out about her books at www.terryodell.com
Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Walking into a house fire that could reach 1000 degrees in under a minute (that’s not a typo) or a chemical fire that may reach double or triple that temperature in seconds, while battling smoke inhalation as well, means a firefighter’s life depends on being supplied with the best equipment that money can buy. Without the proper gear, firefighters can’t stay inside a burning structure long enough to rescue victims or fight the fire successfully.
So, what is the right gear that keeps them safe and still allows them to do their jobs?
Tim Fitts, a veteran firefighter in North Carolina, and Coordinator of certification classes for firefighters and rescue squads at Guilford Technical Community College, demonstrated his gear on a 95 degree day in September. Fire isn’t selective about the weather, so it’s a good thing for us that firefighters train and work under all kinds of conditions.
The firefighter uniform is generally called ‘turnout gear’ by firefighters because they turn it inside out when not in use, so that they can step into it quickly and pull it on/up when the fire bell/siren sounds. Firefighters need to get completely dressed in about a minute, so any safe system that will speed up the process is used. Some guys pull on the boots and pants, grab the rest of the gear and finish getting dressed in the truck as it pulls out of the fire station.
The official name for the gear is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Parts of the firefighter uniform:
While on the job at a fire or rescue operation that might result in a fire, most firefighters will wear these pieces of clothing:
These three hoods are made of different fabrics: Kevlar blend, PBI/Kevlar, and Nomex.
Firefighters put a hood on before the jacket, so that it sits properly on the shoulders. They tend to wear two hoods to protect against a flashover, giving their heads the extra defense needed in the intense heat. If a flashover occurs, the firefighter will have about two seconds to get out of the building. If the hoods are not providing enough coverage, it will feel like 1000 bees stinging the ears at one time – it’s too hot to stand. It’s time to get out.
The helmets are made of thick, heat resistant plastic and often include Kevlar or Nomex flaps for the ears.
Firefighters are taught to fight fires on their knees (not while crawling) so the extra padding helps cushion the wear and tear on the knees.
In addition, the firefighters put on:
The PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used by firefighters entering a hazardous environment – a burning building. When the firefighter does not move for 30 seconds, it makes a loud, shrill, really annoying sound, letting others in the area know that something is wrong.
The mask on the left is a newer model, the one on the right? Older. There has been an upgrade in technology for the plastic in the mask, developed because at high temperatures, the old plastic would fail (melt). It was the weakest part of the uniform. The new version will not fail as quickly.
Note that even the air tank is protected with a fire retardant fabric.
The idea is to be protected from the fire and to be able to breathe safely while he/she works. The positive pressure mask on the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) gear keeps the toxic air out as much as possible by allowing the tank air to flow continuously, even if the firefighter is not inhaling. By the way, the tanks are full of compressed air, not oxygen.
Most of the clothes have reflective tape so that the firefighter can be seen more easily through the smoke and low light/darkness. Some departments are large enough that they use color-coded reflective tape in order to tell the full-time firefighters and the volunteers apart.
The uniforms are sized to the individual firefighters, so that when they bend over, there is at least a two-inch overlap with the fabric pieces, and no skin is exposed to the crippling, blistering heat.
Hip boots of years ago, are now old school because of the area of the body they left unprotected from heat. Now the boots have steel toes and shanks and are calf high or knee high in length.
When fully dressed, the firefighter is wearing about 70 pounds of equipment. Add more weight for the tools they have to carry – picks, axes, etc – needed to fight the fire.
After ten years, all turnout gear must be thrown away. It wears out because of repeated exposure to the intense heat and toxic elements. Many large, active fire departments dispose of the clothing after only five years, because of their more frequent use and improvements in technology.
Firefighting gear is not fireproof. It is fire retardant.
Some of the clothing has 3 layers, each layer performing a different function. People can only tolerate temperatures to 135 degrees, so the specialized fabrics extend the time available to do the job. Firefighters get very uncomfortable at 250 degrees, and the time limit for the firefighter at that point is about 30 seconds to reach someone and get out. One of the firefighters at Command keeps track of the men/women – where they are in the structure and how long they’ve been working the fire.
Nomex degrades at 400 degrees, so needs to be used in addition to other fabrics if fighting a structural fire. It tends to split when the wearer is running. When combined with Kevlar, it becomes more flexible and the fabric breathes a bit better.
PBI degrades at 1100 degrees, allowing a much better chance for the firefighter to stay safe while fighting a house blaze. It stays intact in the extreme temperatures and allows the firefighter extra time to get to a victim and then get out.
Gortex helps shed water.
Heat goes through each layer a bit at a time. Each layer is a necessary barrier, in its place to protect the firefighter and keep his body from getting hotter than is safe.
After fires, all of the clothing needs to be taken apart and washed, because everything in a fire is carcinogenic. Hmm…that means that the entire time a firefighter is working the fire, his equipment has to protect him from the flames and the smoke, as well as anything else thrown into the air, both in the active fire and in the area outside the building.
Some fire Captains insist that the clothing be stored away from the sleeping area at the station, because it may still contain toxins even after being washed. If you get a chance to visit a Fire Station, you might be able to tell where the gear is kept, before you ever reach the room. The smoky odor is sharp and unforgettable.
Cost of Basic Turnout Gear (approximate)
Tim Fitts told us about the testing going on at NC State’s College of Textiles, in the search for better, more effective, fire retardant fabrics.
To see a demonstration of how a firefighter’s uniform reacts to fire, click here for NC State’s PyroMan video:
For a demonstration of how quickly heat from a flame penetrates protective layers before reaching the skin, click here for NC State’s PyroMan animation:
Every second counts when rescuing you or your pets in a fire. We know that a simple house fire can fully engulf an 8’x10’ room in 90 seconds. That’s not a typo. If the firefighters are on the scene before that happens to the entire house, they need as much lead time as possible in order to keep a rescue operation from becoming a recovery operation. That’s when the best turnout gear on the market is worth every dime.
*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken at Guilford Technical Community College, NC, during The 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.
Thanks to Tim Fitts for generously sharing his knowledge and expertise. As of this writing, in 2014, Tim, a veteran firefighter and Fire Occupational Extension Coordinator at GTCC, was in charge of all Con Ed certification and non-certification classes in Fire and Rescue subjects to members of NC fire departments and rescue squads. Any errors in fact are mine, not his.
If you’re curious about what it takes to qualify for Firefighter Training, read “How do you become a firefighter?”