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The importance of radio discipline on ‘officer down’ calls

Take that tactical pause before pressing the mic button

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To assist with processing these events it is important to understand that an officer-down incident is a critical incident and should be handled like other critical incidents.

This feature is part of Police1’s Digital Edition, “Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.” Download the guide here.

Most police officers who have been working when an “officer down” or similar emergency pops up have heard the radio traffic go wild. Cops are racing one another to grab their radio mics and report they are on their way. Meanwhile, the poor soul who is in jeopardy can’t get on the air to update the responders because their transmissions are being squelched. Is there a good solution to this problem?

The problem – or the solution, depending on your point of view – is radio discipline. Taking a deep breath and thinking for a second or two before grabbing the mic might make the difference by allowing the officer under the gun to transmit a critical piece of information.

David Pearson recently retired as a lieutenant with the Fort Collins Police Services in Fort Collins, Colorado, and is the principal of Rocky Mountain Blue Line Consulting, LLC, a police training firm. He has over 30 years of police experience and is a long-time member and instructor with the National Tactical Officers Association. Radio discipline is just one of the topics he covers in his “Top 20” class in tactical decision-making.

“I have been involved in and have debriefed calls where somebody will yell on the radio ‘Officer down, officer down,’ and that’s about all they get out,” Pearson said. “And now you have officers screaming to that event and they are going into an unknown. And, because everyone wants to help and go on the call everyone is saying, ‘I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go,’ and there’s a lot of radio traffic that’s taken up with people that are trying to get there, as opposed to saying what do they are going to do when they arrive.”

In some cases, the first officer to arrive feels the need to take some immediate action and falls victim to the same threat the initial officer did.

“Unless there is a need to immediately get into a gunfight, they probably should do more evaluating, planning and communicating than taking any action,” Pearson said. “Oftentimes the probability of success will go up if they take a few seconds (a ‘tactical pause’) to breathe, evaluate and communicate with other officers and say, ‘Here’s what I got, here’s what needs to occur.’ If they took a little time, there would be a better chance of success in resolving the incident in the best way possible.”

Noble cause mentality

The cops who fall into the trap of action without thought have what Pearson calls a “noble cause mentality.” Their intentions are nothing but good, but their zeal for getting to the incident and rendering assistance at all costs limits their usefulness and purpose. Instead of helping to resolve the situation with a good outcome, they can be a liability.

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“I would never second guess somebody’s bravery, but in some cases, I think officers feel like they need to go do something without thinking through it. That noble cause mentality can get you or others hurt if you’re not thinking through that,” Pearson said. “I listened through a difficult debrief where an officer was shot. The next officer said ‘officer down’ then immediately went to assist and was also shot. The third officer just arriving on scene immediately saw two officers down and moved up and was also hit. I could not help but think if the officers would have taken a few seconds to communicate the situation it might have made a difference. I know these are difficult situations and it is easy to arm-chair quarterback an event, but it was something I was left thinking.”

Understand the safety priorities

To assist with processing these events it is important to understand that an officer-down incident is a critical incident and should be handled like other critical incidents.

“When we single that out as ‘special’ I think officers are thrown off their game. I think sometimes when officers hear ‘officer down,’ emotions kick in and making emotional decisions can be dangerous. It is important to have a consistent decision-making model to work through all critical incidents. It is important to gather facts and intel, understand the environment and terrain, and then pick the correct tools and tactics to resolve a problem. When officers do that, emotions are suppressed and good training kicks in,” Pearson said.

Another important aspect is understanding the mission and the relevant safety priorities: hostages, innocent civilians, officers and suspects.

“If officers are on an active shooter or hostage incident, they might step over a downed officer to perform a rescue or address an active threat,” Pearson notes. “An officer down on a patrol response to a robbery, domestic, traffic stop, or shooting might be different.”

If you are unclear about the mission, trying to work things out in the moment might create lag time that can lead to bad consequences.

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Agency policies

Agencies can also review their policies regarding radio procedures. Do they require an officer to report over the radio when they are running code (emergency lights and sirens)? If so, consider modifying that policy to reduce radio traffic. In addition, some agencies advocate moving extraneous traffic regarding the incident to a secondary channel.

Pearson favors keeping all radio traffic on the main radio channel: “If you turn to a different channel to address the perimeter or something and then switch back and somebody’s halfway talking about the plan, you’re like, ‘Oh, what did they say?’ So, clear the channel, listen, communicate when needed, and go help.”

When responding to hot calls, some officers find the need to get on the radio and notify everyone that they’re responding. This is often unnecessary. Pearson noted how this was handled at his agency.

“If you were the third person on the radio saying you were going to a call, you got my attention. We must develop a culture that says if we have an emergency and you feel the need to respond, and it’s the right thing to do, then go. When you get out of the car, call on scene. But, normally, in these crisis events, whether it be a robbery, an officer down or shooting or whatever, most dispatchers will send at least two cars, and the first two cars should say, ’Yep, got it.’ Everyone else just go.”

The importance of mental rehearsal

Inexperienced officers can be the worst violators of radio discipline.

“You can tell the people who have thought through this before when it’s not their first rodeo,” Pearson said. “The people who have never thought about being in that circumstance are yelling and screaming. What ends up happening is they yell, and the dispatcher can’t understand them. So, of course, they’re going to have to ask, ‘Last unit, say again,’ and you just wasted that time.

“There is a great saying, ‘You will not rise to the occasion, you will fall to the level of your training.’ I had a friend who was involved in a shooting. His radio traffic was like he was ordering coffee. This was his first shooting in real life but not his first shooting in his mind. He had practiced and thought through what he needed to do and what he needed to say and attended scenario-based training events. It is amazing what a little mental practice and prep can do for performance.”

Take a tactical pause

Supervisors can play a huge role in setting the tone at a critical incident by remaining calm, directing the traffic to information and planning, and ensuring actions are followed through. Before an event, supervisors can also set up a scenario or tabletop to have officers work through what to say, when to be on the radio and other expectations. These quick sessions can be safely accomplished after shift briefing in the parking lot.

“The biggest thing is to just take that tactical pause where you’re breathing, thinking and then communicating the needs that you have. It helps you focus on getting back to your training and your tactics and understanding the concept,” Pearson said.

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Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.