Three words can help calm a chaotic scene

By Sgt. Bill Campbell
Gilbert (Ariz.) Police Department Tactical Operations Unit

Imagine this scene: A hot tone goes off and all officers available are dispatched to a huge mess of a call. Imagine a random hot call in your mind. It can be a large wreck with possible fatalities, or a man with a gun call, a suicidal subject who has barricade himself, an active shooter at a public place, even a downed officer; the scene is chaotic.

Everyone is responding as fast as possible and dispatch is desperately trying to get information to the officers from the callers on the line. As officers arrive, they try to determine what needs to be done, where they should go, what they should do and the situation becomes more hectic on the radio.

In the midst of the confusion two things inevitably happen. First, multiple officers continue to respond without direction and search for a way to help, often what the officers see does not match what dispatch is describing from the callers, causing more confusion.

Secondly, a supervisor who has not yet arrived, senses a vacuum of leadership and begins to try to direct the officers on scene from the radio, often miles away from the scene. We have all experienced this.

It’s important to understand that this vacuum of leadership and direction must be filled to quickly overcome the chaos. Supervisors are accustomed to directing others and if they sense that direction is required, they will feel compelled to give it. The problem is that the supervisor who has not yet arrived is often working from flawed information. The best information and direction is going to come directly from the source of the problem. So if the supervisor is not in a position to give informed direction, who is? Who should fill the vacuum of leadership in these cases?

The answer is simple and obvious: The first responding officer is the one most likely to have first hand information and the ability to make informed decisions. That first officer on scene need only say three words to fill the vacuum:

“I’m in Command!” These three words accomplish a number of important tasks that are so important during a chaotic scene.

By making this statement, the officer:

1. establishes himself as a source for first hand real time information.
2. clarifies who is in charge and can then clearly and quickly communicate and coordinate with other officers to gain control of the chaos and establish a safe environment for all involved.
3. becomes the pivot point for other responders to establish a perimeter and backup units.
4. makes their location the primary spot on the map that other officers recognize as an initial Command Post. These officers now have a leader who can intelligently direct them to the point of their most effective use.
5. focuses radio use to his purpose, removing needless chatter. This makes the dispatcher’s job much easier as they coordinate with a single leader rather than multiple voices.
6. allows the supervisor to concentrate on responding safely and prevents the supervisor from making uninformed decisions and useless deployments of resources.
7. initializes the Incident Command System which may later be extended into a larger scene using multiple resources such as Fire/Paramedics, Air Support, Citizen Search Teams etc.

Through the use of these three simple words, the vacuum is filled quickly and the responding officers can work together under a clear direction rather than from multiple points of perspective or worse, from an uninformed perspective. This first responding officer is the first true Incident Commander. With a coordinated intelligent response, often the scene can be stabilized within just a few minutes before the supervisor even arrives.

Once the Supervisor does arrive, he or she can go directly to the source for an informed briefing. Once briefed on the scene, the Supervisor can assume command or assist the established Incident Commander as needed.

To the first responding officers, I would advise; understand how ICS works and recognize that often the fastest way for you to quickly establish control and restore order on a chaotic scene is to simply “take command.”

To supervisors, I would recommend that you encourage your officers on scene to take control and set up Incident Command whenever needed. Teach them the principles of how to Contact, Contain and then Control the problem, with or without supervisor presence. And finally recognize that an informed officer on scene is often in a far better position to lead than a supervisor miles away. When you do arrive on scene, the transition of leadership will go much easier for you.

In summary, a smooth informed first response is often best led by the first officers on scene. First person “eyes on the ground” are almost always better than a “third person voice” over the telephone or radio. To fill the leadership vacuum and coordinate an effective and quick response, remember those very important three words: “I’m in Command.”

Sgt. Bill Campbell is a Supervisor and SWAT Team Leader for the Gilbert, AZ. Police Department. Bill also teaches firearms instructor courses nationally in all firearms disciplines for the National Rifle Association, Law Enforcement Activities Division. To contact Bill with feedback or questions, please send e-mail to: .


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