Working together with aviation, maritime, and SWAT

During a complex and changing major incident, the entire specialized unit package must act, think, and work as one in order to succeed

Editor’s Note: The purpose of this article is to emphasize the training, commitment, and coordination to successfully perform complicated, coordinated missions utilizing multiple disciplines among an agency’s specialized units. In the interest of maintaining operational security for his former colleagues in NYPD and nearby agencies, PoliceOne Aviation Columnist Ken Solosky has chosen to purposefully omit certain critical aspects and details of such missions from this text.

The events of September 11, 2001 forced all domestic law enforcement agencies to consider the devastating possibilities of terrorist attacks in their jurisdiction. No longer were these almost unthinkable attacks just a possibility, they became a hard reality almost overnight. Agencies examined their infrastructure and potential targets and began the task of planning and practicing response to such incidents. Nuclear reactors, public works infrastructure, and transportation facilities were among the highest priority sites examined. No agency was immune. Departments in big cities as well as rural areas became intimately aware of all the potential targets within their jurisdictions. The attacks also forced a much closer coordination and cooperation of specialized units such as aviation, maritime, SWAT, and other tactical assets including SCUBA and EOD teams.

Consider the planning and response to a boat that has been taken over by a group of terrorists. Unlike suicide bombers who conduct their attack without regard to their own lives, this group has decided to hold hostages in order to meet a specific demand. Yes, the FBI’s highly trained and experienced Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) would be called on to perform a counterassault. However, what if the terrorists took hostages in multiple ports? What if ten boats all around the United States were taken simultaneously?

Local law enforcement might be required to provide support or directly handle the mission. This type of operation would require tremendous coordination between the aviation unit, maritime unit, and tactical units. The successful operation requires a lot of training that should be part of every agency’s specialized unit recurrent training programs. All specialized unit personnel should play the “what if” game and come up with every imaginable possibility and plan for it. It’s a sure bet that terrorists are doing the same.

The cowards responsible for the September 11 attacks knew that their Tuesday morning flights would be relatively empty as business travelers historically travel on Sunday/Monday and Friday. They choose long-distance flights that would be heavily loaded with jet fuel. Finally, they choose a day that didn’t have a cloud in the sky so that they could fly towards their intended targets with little difficulty.

For our scenario, the boat taken hostage is a commuter ferry boat loaded with approximately 90 passengers.

The Incident Commander has determined that negotiations are going poorly and intelligence backs up their belief that a counterassault will be necessary. In the past, boats have been taken by this group in other countries and they seem to just want to assemble the media, make their escape, and then blow the boat up drawing dramatic and frightening attention to their “cause.”

The options available to the Incident Commander are few and all come with a relatively high risk of danger. The terrorists’ advantage is that they can see any approaching counterassault team.

The IC assembles the specialized unit commanders and they decide to implement a pre-practiced plan, adapting it to the current situation, and that a combined aviation and maritime counterassault offers the best chance of success. The counterassault plan combines having a tactical SCUBA team approach underwater (and undetected) to gain entry to the boat. The team is “covered” by snipers stationed on the maritime unit’s boats.

As the SCUBA team begins its silent boarding, the tactical team personnel fast-rope from a helicopter to the boat, under the cover of another aircraft. An active counterassault is begun. The SCUBA team secures any below deck compartments and the fast-rope team secures the bridge and hostages. Although the terrorists are well trained and well armed, the multipronged assault overwhelms them and the hostages are successfully rescued.

Unfortunately one tactical operator has sustained a serious leg wound during the assault. He has lacerated his femoral artery and time is of the essence. The onsite tactical medic calls for a helicopter medevac and a helicopter returns. The injured police officer is hoisted aboard the aircraft and flown to a trauma center for treatment.

A successful counterassault such as described above requires hours of training. Specialized unit personnel have to understand the lingo, jargon, and tactics of all the other units. All possibilities must be conveyed and understood, and several questions need to be considered, such as:

• Should EOD be on the assault team to neutralize explosive booby traps?
• Should Tactical EMS paramedics be on the assault team?
• If on land, is there a potential for a waterway escape?

A few years back, when I was conducting joint fast-rope and rappel training, there was a palpable tension between aviation unit personnel and tactical personnel. Finally, an alert supervisor stopped the training in order to investigate the source of the tension. Apparently, one of the aviation unit personnel had made an offhand remark that if a rappeller got “hung up” the aviation unit would relatively quickly “cut the rappel line” of the rappeller in order to save the aircraft and crew.

There actually IS an emergency procedure that does consider cutting a rappel line. However, it would require an extreme situation that in the opinion of the aircrew, cutting the line was a better option for all involved. For example, the only alternative is the aircraft descending on top of the rappeller (i.e. an engine failure) and causing certain death. In such a case, the rappeller stands a better chance of surviving a fall than being crushed by thousands of pounds of aircraft. This was discussed at length and the training was resumed with everyone feeling much better. The inter-unit training must be consistent and often. There is absolutely no room for error or unexpected surprises.

If an agency is considering providing this type of support, it must certainly consider it with a very high degree of commitment. This commitment includes political, administrative, and financial support to sustain the capability to perform with a very high confidence of all players on the team. The entire specialized unit package must act, think, and work as one to succeed.

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