It’s time for the breaching task force

A joint police-fire response is necessary to breach the obstacles that prevent responders from rescuing victims quickly

The U.S. Army is good at breaking things. Our infantry and armor soldiers have the tools to destroy enemy troops and equipment, as well as the training and experience to use them effectively. At times, however, they need assistance from specialists who can defeat enemy fortifications and defenses, and create a path where there is none. When that happens, our troops call on the combat engineers.

Combat engineers are specialists who are trained to remove the obstacles that can stop the army from advancing. Combat engineers handle the minefields, berms, trenches, tank traps, blown bridges, pillboxes and other obstacles that bog things down. They build bridges to ford rivers, and roads to cross jungles ‒ all to keep the tracks rolling, wheels turning and boots marching.

When the Army finds a locked door, it’s the combat engineers who show up with the “master key.”

SWAT teams and police respond to reports of a shooting on campus at Ohio State University, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio.
SWAT teams and police respond to reports of a shooting on campus at Ohio State University, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

LE needs the equivalent of combat engineers

After studying and writing about rapid mass murders (term credited to Ron Borsch) ‒ or active killer attacks ‒ for a number of years, it appears to me that our police could use their own set of “combat engineers” to defeat the obstacles that slow their search for the attacker(s) and deny the timely rescue of victims.

From San Bernardino to Virginia Beach, and all places in between, we’re seeing police officers rush into buildings to save the innocent, only to be stymied by a series of obstacles that they don’t have the tools to get through.

The most common obstacle encountered by police in these mass casualty incidents (MCIs) are locked doors. As a result of post-9/11 era security improvements, as well as the increased adoption of lockdown and barricade protocols as defensive measures, police are more likely than ever to encounter a large number of locked doors when they enter a commercial or institutional building. The locked doors are generally a good thing for security, and there’s no doubt they save lives by keeping active killers out during an attack, but they do complicate things for the police officers who are trying to stop the killing and rescue the victims.

These locked doors become even more difficult to breach once they’ve been reinforced by potential victims during a lockdown. Stacked furniture, door wedges and other makeshift reinforcements can compound the difficulty of getting through, even with rams, hammers and other tools.

Additionally, law enforcement cannot expect nervous victims to dismantle the barricades and let them in. The victims will be rightfully skeptical about the identity of the person on the other side of the door who’s claiming to be a police officer (especially since so many active killers are wearing police-type clothing and gear these days), and most won’t be willing to approach the danger zone to conduct a verification. [1] We’ve seen this behavior repeatedly in active shooter incidents, so if the door is going to be opened, it will probably have to be done by public safety personnel.

How soon we forget

To illustrate, when a pair of Islamic terrorists attacked the Inland Regional Center (IRC) in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015, responding officers had to search and clear an entire complex of office buildings, then rescue the innocents trapped inside.

Travis Walker – a former lieutenant with the San Bernardino Police Department who served as the tactical and incident commander that day, reported that over 100 locked doors were breached in the three main buildings of the complex by the three SWAT teams that cleared them. Furthermore, the effort was so physically taxing that breachers had to be rotated out continuously, and some officers sustained injuries as a result of the (literally) backbreaking work.

Like most officers who arrive at these MCI scenes, Walker's troops didn't have access to master keys or electronic key cards that would have opened these doors easily, so they had to mechanically breach all of them. Fortunately, as a result of prior joint training and preparation efforts, the three allied teams (San Bernardino PD SWAT, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department SWAT and the Inland Valley multi-jurisdiction team) had access to some basic breaching tools, but progress was slow and the delay increased the risk to officers and citizens alike. In the end, it took several hours to fully clear the buildings in the IRC, due in part to the extensive breaching requirements.

After the attack, Walker traveled the nation warning public safety personnel to plan for this contingency. He recommended adding breaching tools to patrol cars and SWAT vehicles, coordinating with facility managers to obtain electronic access cards and master keys, and adding Knox Box-type key storage systems to allow better access for law enforcement. He continues to emphasize this important message today in his presentations on the learning lessons from the terror attack on the IRC.

I tried to help him spread the message by writing about it here in this column, but unfortunately, we’re still not seeing this problem get the attention it deserves. Too many agencies are still completely unprepared to breach a large number of doors after their officers enter a building in search of a killer.

Defining expectations

When the first officers arrive on the scene of an active shooter that’s occurring inside a structure, we expect them to make immediate entry into the building, then locate, close with and stop the attacker(s). These “contact team” members need to travel light, so they can move quickly and deftly through the building as they seek the killer(s).

Besides the normal equipment worn by a patrol officer, we would ideally like contact team members to enter with rifle-rated armor, a long gun, extra ammunition and an enhanced first aid kit. These items can be quickly donned and will make the officer safer and more effective as they search. Extra equipment beyond these essentials will slow the officer down, make more noise and distract the officer from handling their weapon, so it would be inappropriate to expect these initial responders to carry breaching tools into the building.

However, as the incident develops, there will be a certain point where additional contact teams are no longer necessary, and newly arriving officers should be assigned to other tasks. For example, when the attacker is killed or captured, has been isolated, or has lost his mobility, consideration should be given to conducting evacuation, rescue and extraction missions, perhaps in concert with fire and EMS as part of a Rescue Task Force (RTF).

When this stage of the incident is reached, it’s appropriate to consider sending officers into the structure with breaching tools. By this time, the situation may allow officers to breach secured doors in areas that have already been passed through, and rescue victims hiding behind them. Alternatively, the situation may have evolved to the point that the killer is barricaded, and officers will have to breach a door to gain access to him.

Certainly, these officers should first try to acquire electronic access cards and keys that will eliminate the need for mechanical or explosive breaching. However, they should also have the special tools necessary to force open doors, as required. We wouldn’t want to burden the initial contact team officers with these heavy and awkward tools, but it’s appropriate for follow-on forces to bring them into the building when the situation has matured.

Better yet...

Sending cops with breaching tools into a building is one way of doing business, but I think we can do even better with a joint team comprised of fire and police personnel ‒ one that I’ll call a “Breaching Task Force” (BTF).

Like the Rescue Task Force that we’re growing increasingly comfortable and familiar with, a Breaching Task Force would combine fire and police assets into a small, self-sustaining, independently operating team. The law enforcement part of the team would provide security for the fire portion, which would accomplish the task of breaching doors, busting windows, cutting through walls and performing similar tasks to facilitate evacuation and victim rescue efforts.

Fire personnel are particularly well-suited for this breaching mission. They have an arsenal of sophisticated entry tools at their disposal, to include hydraulic or battery-powered cutters, spreaders and rams, in addition to chainsaws and mechanical instruments like hammers, axes and Halligan tools. More importantly, they have extensive training and experience with all of these tools and know-how to use them efficiently. The firefighters are the civilian equivalent of the military combat engineers that the police need so badly when they encounter an obstacle that stops their advance. [2]

A Breaching Task Force would be committed in “Warm Zones,” much like the members of today’s Rescue Task Forces. The fire personnel in a Breaching Task Force would breach obstacles in areas that were secured by law enforcement, and work under the protection of officers who were attached to them with the primary mission of protecting BTF members. As with some RTFs today, the fire personnel in a BTF may consider adding ballistic-rated helmets and armor to their fire uniforms, for additional protection.

Can’t we just train the cops?

It’s possible we could train and equip police officers to conduct the breaching work in a BTF as a way of mitigating fire’s exposure to active killer threats, but the integrated approach offers many advantages.

First, fire personnel have superior training and experience in this area. Even if we gave thorough training to police personnel, they would lack the real-world experience of their fire counterparts, who use these skills and this equipment routinely on everyday calls.

Second, using fire personnel helps to guarantee that the assets will be available. If the specially equipped police cars containing the BTF equipment are across town, or can’t get through the traffic ‒ including hordes of emergency vehicles ‒ then the desperately needed equipment won’t be there. Similarly, if one or more of the specially trained officers are on scene, but have already been committed as contact team members, the police-only BTF will be unavailable for duty. In contrast, the right equipment and personnel will always be in place if there’s an engine on scene with BTF-trained firefighters.

To help ensure the safety of fire personnel, a BTF would normally not be assigned to breach a door where armed suspects are known to be on the other side. That's a job that's best reserved for SWAT when they arrive on the scene. However, proper consideration should be given to how a BTF might be used to breach a door in a tactically-sound manner in exigent circumstances (i.e., a barricaded gunman begins to kill hostages before SWAT arrives), and the BTF should actively train and prepare for that scenario to enhance team safety.

Paradigm shift

There are important issues and concerns about the Breaching Task Force concept that must be addressed by the fire and police communities before we commit to this idea. Just as we had to hammer out the doctrine, command structure and protocols for deploying Rescue Task Forces, then work on the training and equipping of these teams, we would have to do the same work in advance for the Breaching Task Force.

If history is any indicator though, this work would be effort well spent. We’ve seen plenty of examples in the past where police officers were delayed from saving lives by locked doors, and we can expect to see more of them in future active shooter and rapid mass murder incidents.

The problem exists, and it’s our responsibility to solve it. I think it’s time for us to capitalize on the success and groundwork of the Rescue Task Force concept, and work on the Breaching Task Force next.

It’s the next best thing to calling in the combat engineers.


1. Some officers have successfully used tactics like sliding ID cards or business cards under the door to verify their identity. Travis Walker suggests that having a second ID on a lanyard might be excellent preparation.

2. Here, credit is due to LTC Dave Grossman, who was the first person this author is aware of to draw the analogy between military combat engineers and civilian firefighters.

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