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30 years of the Street Survival Seminar

Hundreds of thousands of cops have been impacted by a seminar that began with a dozen officers crammed into an elementary school classroom

For thirty years, the Street Survival Seminar has provided hundreds of thousands of police officers with insights and ideas for staying safe on patrol. Held more than three dozen times every year, the Seminar has visited virtually every state in the Union — including Alaska and Hawaii — on at least one occasion. It’s been held in hundreds of cities in America — some locations, such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, have become annual events. Other locations — like Cleveland, Dallas, Ft. Lauderdale, Kansas City, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and San Diego — are visited once every two or three years. It is commonplace for officers with the RCMP in Canada to attend seminars in the Northern Tier, and officers from as far away as Vladivostok, Russia have flown to the United States to attend.

If you ask a roomful of cops whether they’ve ever heard of the Street Survival Seminar, you’re likely to have good number of them tell you they’ve attended. Furthermore, they’ll probably tell you sign up for the next time it’s held within a 300-mile radius of your department.

But it wasn’t always this big, this successful, or this well-known. It wasn’t always videos and PowerPoint slides. The Seminar, like so many things in law enforcement, has evolved over time. But the mission — which is at once simple and complex — has remained the same: “Provide the most dynamic, intense, innovative, and motivational training experience available to the law enforcement community.”

Here, we take a brief look back at this thing that’s become an institution for officer safety, but this article is far from complete without your own stories, memories, and thoughts. Add your comments here.

Humble Beginnings
The Street Survival Seminar is the brainchild of Chuck Remsberg, a freelance writer with a master’s degree in journalism, and Denny Anderson, a Minnesota native who produced law enforcement training films for Motorola Teleprograms. Together, Anderson and Remsberg created training films, and although neither man knew much about book publishing, in early 1980 they released “Street Survival” under the publishing name of Calibre Press, a small company based in Chuck’s Northbrook (Ill.) basement.

Remsberg tells Police1, “Sometime that summer, a reserve officer from Lansing, Ill. — a Chicago suburb — tracked me down by phone at a party one night. He had just read the book, was very excited about it, and asked if Denny and I would meet with officers of his acquaintance and talk about the book and its lessons on officer survival.”

Remsberg says that he and Anderson agreed, and met one evening with perhaps a dozen officers. They talked about the book and showed a film called Survival Shooting Techniques, an earlier Rembsberg/Anderson collaboration from which parts of the Street Survival book had emerged.

“This meeting was held at an elementary school,” Remsberg recalls, “and the cops, most of them in full uniform with duty gear hanging off their belts, were shoehorned into grade school desk-chairs to listen. It was a pretty humble event. Denny forgot to bring some slides that accompanied the film, so we drew various tactical moves on a chalk board. We drove the long distance back to our homes pretty discouraged at what we considered a failed performance.”

Despite the presenters’ own feelings about the evening, the cops in attendance appreciated what they’d seen, and began to do what cops do — talk amongst themselves. It wasn’t long before a training officer from the Richton Park Police Department, a neighboring suburban department, asked Denny and Chuck to present a day-long program to about 100 officers. It was so popular that second presentation was added for the Autumn.

“During the winter, we received a desperate call from a campus cop at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He had booked a two-day training program for his area but the would-be presenters had cancelled out on him, leaving him holding the bag. Based on the book’s growing reputation and popularity, he wondered if we could put together an officer survival program to fill in. We agreed upon a presentation in February 1981, I believe.”

About 350 officers from eight states showed up for that training and were wildly enthusiastic about it. As a result, the team got invitations from multiple departments to repeat the program.

“From then on,” Rembsberg says, “we were in the seminar business on an ongoing basis.”

Sustainable Growth
Even in the early years, it soon became clear that the Seminar was simply too big for just too men — at one Las Vegas presentation, more than 900 officers from some 30 states and Canada were present. Although Remsberg and Anderson were initially the sole instructors, as the seminar grew in popularity, and to enable its founders time for their other professional pursuits, new instructors were added.

“After a year or two we hired Dave Tracy, a trainer and SWAT officer from Maryland, as an instructor to replace me so I could work on the Tactical Edge. About a year after that, we hired Dave Smith to replace Denny so he could work on Surviving Edged Weapons, our first video production. Denny and I appeared as instructors periodically after that, but for the most part we relied on professional cops to conduct the program.”

Dave Smith says, “In 1983, Denny and Chuck contacted me about the Buck Savage training videos I had done and the next thing I knew I was standing on a stage in San Diego doing a Street Survival Seminar. I did the seminars from August ‘83 through the end of ‘85 when my department commitments became too great to continue doing the seminars. I can’t express how proud I was to become involved again in 1999 and continue to be part of it to today. I always leave a seminar feeling so proud of the men and women of law enforcement and thinking of the things I have learned from those who attended. It has been an education so vast and intense — I couldn’t have gotten any better laboratory in the world than the Street Survival Seminar. I will always be grateful to Denny and Chuck for the opportunity that changed my life.”

Dave Grossi, who taught the seminars for a dozen years, recalls, “My first contact with the Street Survival Seminar was in 1987. Chuck and Denny contacted me and asked if I would fly to Cleveland, view the three-day seminar, and evaluate the program. I did, and shortly thereafter they asked me to join the staff. I began instructing part-time in January 1988, until I joined the staff as a full time instructor after my retirement from active police duty in 1990. Back then, we traveled with twelve large media cases which contained four slide/film projectors, over a dozen reels of film, and more than two thousand slides.”

Smiths’ and Grossi’s stories are not uncommon. It’s interesting to note that Calibre Press has never hired an instructor or presenter for the Street Survival Seminar who “applied” for the job. They “recruit” their cadre of instructors from police training experts based on their specific qualifications and credentials.

At the end of 2002, Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith was on the marketing team for Calibre Press and had her own show on LETN, the organization that owned Calibre at the time. In 2003, Calibre recruited from within — making Sgt. Brantner Smith an instructor after she developed the Street Survival for Women seminar, which was the first and remains only of its kind to this day.

Brantner Smith recalls, “As a young cop in the Chicago suburbs in the 1980’s, ‘Street Survival’ was new on the scene but already legendary in its impact on my chosen profession. I read the book and then looked into the seminar. My department wouldn’t pay for me to attend so I did what so many of our students do — I paid for it myself and used vacation days to attend. As I watched Dave Smith and Dave Tracy on stage, I was completely blown away! There was so much I didn’t know, so much I needed to learn, to improve upon. And when I left I wanted to share it all with my fellow cops! I left my first seminar a totally different person and a completely different cop, and I truly believe that what I learned from Calibre Press in the early days of my career truly saved my life on more than one occasion in my 29 years as a cop. To stand before my peers now and deliver those same lessons is a privilege beyond words.”

Remsberg, Anderson, and the seminar instructors continued to research and craft content so the material remained fresh and up-to-date. Remsberg credits Scott Buhrmaster, who signed on with Calibre Press in June of 1989, as playing a key role in that effort, “with his excellent research skills.”

Speaking of founders Remsberg and Anderson, Buhrmaster recalls: “What struck me most was their tireless and unwavering dedication to getting the best officer survival information from the best sources and refining it and disseminating it to a degree never before seen in law enforcement. These two individuals taught me the value of going the extra mile, regardless of the sometimes extraordinary effort it took, to get the kind of detailed information officers truly needed to stay safe. We had the honor of interviewing thousands of officers and trainers, who selflessly shared their knowledge — and even details of their own tactical mistakes that in many instances cost them dearly — in the interest of making sure other officers could benefit from what they knew and had learned. I can think of no other professional position in which you have the profound opportunity to speak to an officer who, often through tears, tells you that he’s alive today because of the work you and your organization have done. That’s a truly life-changing experience.”

Today, the Street Survival Seminar Instructor Cadre consists of:

• Sgt. Raimondo “Ray” DeCunto, a law enforcement officer since 1981, retired from the Narcotics Division of the Pinellas Country Sheriff’s Office in 2009
• Timothy M. Goergen, Chief of Police for the Village of Bloomingdale and a police officer since 1980
• Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, who recently retired from the Naperville (Ill.) Police Department after 29 years of service
• Dave “Buck Savage” Smith, an internationally-known speaker, trainer, and writer who has been an integral part of Calibre Press for more than 20 years

In addition to the “faces” of the seminar seen on stage across the country, the team also includes nearly a dozen planning and logistics people, sales and marketing staff, and other individuals essential to each seminar’s success.

But without question, the people without whom any of it would be possible are the police officers (and their spouses) who attend. Cops at the seminars open up to the instructors about some very intense and intimate issues. Marriage, shootings, near death experiences, supervisors, loss of friends, you name it.

Word on the “Street”…
Here’s what some of those cops say about the Seminar.

“In March of 2009 I attended the Street Survival Seminar in Saginaw, MI. I thought the information was highly important and profoundly impactful. The class turned me around 180 degrees. Although I have always tried to be a safe and tactically minded person, I took a lot for granted with my training, weapons and general mindset. You have helped me find my way through the Fog of Life. With 22 years in law enforcement, I realize that now is the time, more than ever, to hone my tactics and skills. Keep up the good work, and keep training our fellow brothers and sisters in blue and brown and green to stay safe.”
— Officer Jeffrey W. Washington, Flint PD

“The seminar was fantastic. As an administrator, it has changed my way of thinking ... [we have] to put more training in place and stop worrying about the small stuff. Administration worries way too much on what the media and the public may think — it is my job to train and keep all my officers safe so they go home at the end of the shift.”
— Chief James Qualls, Hutchinson County Sheriff’s Office

“I absolutely love this class. I am very honored to be allowed the opportunity to attend such a great class. The presentation is so inspiring, so motivating, that simple words can not do it proper justice. This seminar should be required at every academy in the country. Thank you so much for the inspiration, motivation and the tears.
— Deputy Andy Ramaeker, Blair, Nebraska

“I think the Street Survival course is a wonderful tool for law enforcement and every officer should have to attend at least one seminar.
— Officer Tim Craistnee, Dallas Fort Worth, Texas

“I wanted to take a minute to thank Calibre Press for the outstanding training that I received at the 2005 Street Survival Seminar. The instructors are Consummate Professionals. Their knowledge, professionalism, enthusiasm and dedication, were nothing short of excellent. Attending the seminar was a real awakening for me.”
— Chief Stephen McDonald, Scranton, Kansas

“The Street Survival Seminar has consistently been the best officer safety training I have received in my law enforcement career. This seminar was an eye opening update that all officers must strive to say current on the skills needed to survive on the street.”
— Lt. Brad Buchholz, Fontana, Wisconsin

What are your memories and thoughts from the 30-year history of the Street Survival Seminar? Add your comments below.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.