Officer down! Getting an injured officer to safety

By Ofcr. Bob Pippen

In an instant, any of us could be in a situation where we need to rescue a badly wounded officer from a hot-fire zone that a determined attacker is trying to turn into a killing field. Knowing how to respond immediately as a well-coordinated team could mean the difference between life and death for the downed officer. Yet many agencies fail to train street cops in any practical rescue techniques, apparently figuring that SWAT members are the only ones who may ever need such tactics.

Fortunately, all enforcement personnel on the Portland (Ore.) Police Bureau receive officer-evacuation training. We teach a fast, easy-to-learn procedure developed specifically for street officers that can get a wounded cop to a safe location and into the hands of emergency medical responders in as little as 15 seconds. Designed ideally to involve four or even five officers, its principles are flexible enough to work with as few as two. It requires no special equipment and only a few hours of training and practice. And it's been tested and proven effective in the heat of battle on the street.

During one confrontation at a private residence, four of our officers came under a hail of fire from a gunman wielding a high-powered rifle. He killed one officer instantly and critically wounded a second. The other two promptly kicked in to an adapted version of the rescue technique they'd been taught and evacuated both downed officers without further injury.

Although one officer was lost in this tragic event, the actions of the rescuers saved the wounded officer's life, and the cover fire delivered during the maneuver severely wounded the assailant, significantly aiding in his eventual capture.

The tactic requires coverage of three responsibilities: cover-fire, drag, and lead out. When sufficient personnel are on hand, one or more officers can be assigned to each area of responsibility. But it's a good idea to practice combining tasks as part of your training so you can readily adapt when fewer responders are available.

Here's how the technique works:

OFFICER DOWN. The important first step is recognition. When an officer goes down, this must be clearly communicated to other personnel as quickly as possible. Failure to do so may cost you valuable rescue time and give the assailant more opportunity to strike again.

Whoever sees the casualty should shout out loud and clear, “Officer down!” Not everyone may be immediately aware of the crisis, especially when officers are widely separated and the typical chaos of a shooting scene is in full force. With this alert, officers move in to fill the various areas of responsibilities, with the goal of getting the downed officer to the nearest hard cover, where medics can safely deal with him.

COVER-FIRE OFFICER. The first role to fill-and potentially the most vulnerable-is cover-fire officer. This officer, whose job is to deliver rounds toward the suspect's location, advances several feet ahead of the downed officer, where he has an unobstructed field of fire. His position allows the other rescuers adequate space to work without being in his line of fire. He's literally their human shield. If possible, he uses cover or concealment, but environmental factors may dictate that he work exposed. His fire needs to be immediate to neutralize the threat or keep the suspect pinned down and contained until the rescue is complete.

If, as cover-fire officer, you cannot precisely locate the threat, you need to target other areas that are believed to be in close proximity to the suspect; a door jamb, for example. Any target selected must be reasonable, and you need to be able to justify all the rounds you fire; indiscriminately blastingaway fire is not an option because of the risk of “collateral damage.”

The rate of fire should be controlled but sustained. A magazine can empty fast, especially when you're under stress, and you don't want to run out of ammunition. Initially, you may have to discharge three or four rounds to get the attacker to hole up, but then a rate of one round per second may be enough to discourage the suspect from firing back while lessening the need of a reload.

Of course, you must always be prepared to reload if necessary, and to recover from any weapon malfunction that may arise.

If there are multiple assailants and manpower is available, two cover-fire officers can be deployed.

DRAG OFFICER. This team member is responsible for the physical evacuation of the downed officer, using a specific carry technique.

First, as drag officer, you must holster your weapon, to ensure that a negligent discharge does not occur or that you do not lose your gun during the rescue.

Next, kneeling or squatting, roll the downed officer onto his back, then raise him into a seated position. Use your knee or shin to support his back. Slide your arms under his armpits and place your hands on top of his wrists. Pull his wrists up toward his chest. Properly executed, this technique will “lock in” your grip on the downed officer.

Now stand up, being careful to keep your back straight to avoid strain and to push up with your legs. As you rise, the downed officer will be lifted enough off the floor or ground that his butt clears it. Communicate that you're beginning to move out. Then, using sliding steps that keep both your feet on the surface, pull the wounded officer backward to safety. Move cautiously to avoid obstacles that could cause you to fall.

If you have the personnel, a second officer can assist. After you stand with the downed officer in the proper carry position, the second officer moves to the downed officer's feet and stands between the legs. Facing the same direction as you are, the second officer grabs the back of the downed officer's ankles and lifts, in a fashion that does not strain his back. Then the two of you move out of the danger area, with the second officer leading the way for the best visibility and the least risk of stumbling.

With either one or two officers, the transport technique tends to be very secure. In our training, even the smallest officer can drag the biggest, because you're using your strength to pull rather than lift. And, of course, in a real-life crisis, you'll have a good shot of adrenalin going for you, too.

Avoid the temptation to grab an article of the wounded officer's clothing or his arm or leg and just start pulling. That's ineffective because clothing may tear away and tugging on a limb may cause further injury.

If more than one officer is down, as was the case in the confrontation in Portland that I mentioned earlier, the drag will need to be repeated and you'll need to make a quick triage assessment to decide which officer is removed first.

LEAD-OUT OFFICER. This officer's primary responsibility is to guide the cover-fire officer from the area. If manpower does not permit the filling of this slot, then the cover-fire officer must back out on his own, continuing to deliver suppression rounds toward the threat while following the drag officer(s) to safety.

As the lead-out officer, you holster your weapon and communicate that you are helping the cover-fire officer to exit. Make contact with the cover-fire officer by grabbing the underside of his duty belt with your support hand, then place your forearm vertically along his spine. Turn your hips and face in the direction you want to go, and move out.

Avoid grabbing the cover-fire officer's shoulder, arm, or uniform. Contact in those areas may destabilize his shooting platform. Also avoid trying to evacuate while walking backward. It's imperative that the lead-out officer have a clear view ahead to follow the path taken by the drag officer(s) and to avoid obstacles. Because the cover-fire officer will be moving backward in order to continue addressing the threat, you'll need to warn him of what's ahead underfoot. Keep your pulling arm bent, with your forearm against his back, to better regulate your speed and resist yanking.

As lead-out, you can quickly change places with the cover-fire officer if he runs out of ammo or experiences a serious weapon malfunction. In such an emergency, the cover-fire officer yells, “Switch!” This cue does not broadcast any revealing information to the attacker regarding your tactical situation.

Hearing that command, you move up next to the cover-fire officer, draw your weapon, and begin to deliver suppression fire toward the threat. The former cover-fire officer can stay next to the you and try to reload or clear his weapon. Once he's again ready for action, you can revert to being lead-out officer, or he can holster his gun and take over that role. The new lead-out officer should have holstered a functioning weapon in case another switch becomes necessary. If the weapon is not functioning, he needs to inform you.

Once everyone reaches a safe place, do a head count and check yourself and others out for injuries you're not aware of.

WEAPON RETRIEVAL. It's possible that during a rescue the downed officer's weapon may be lost. Some people think you must always recover a loose weapon at all cost; others are more flexible. There's no definitive answer to this difficult dilemma. Common sense, officer safety, and the existing environment will influence your decision. Keep in mind that the safe evacuation of the downed officer and his rescuers is the primary goal and all other actions are secondary.

Every agency, regardless of size, should have an officer-rescue plan. Planning is an essential part of our jobs and preparing for such a critical event as a wounded officer down and in need of help will speed up response and increase chances for success in those unexpected moments when knowing what to do and how to do it can save lives.

About the author

Ofcr. Bob Pippen, a 13-year veteran of law enforcement, is assigned to the Training Division of the Portland (Ore.) Police Bureau.

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