Firefighters partner with SWAT to enhance response
Loveland's TAC Fire unit in Colorado uses firefighters’ existing expertise and skill sets to provide critical support on SWAT operations
By Division Chief Greg Ward
Built off a strong relationship and a common desire to serve the community, the Loveland (Colorado) Fire Rescue Authority’s (LFRA) Tactical Firefighting (TAC Fire) Team functions as a critical element of the Loveland Police Department’s (LPD) SWAT Team.
This unique concept grew from LFRA’s Special Operations personnel working closely with SWAT in the planning and execution of clandestine drug lab raids and hazard mitigation, with LFRA performing decontamination procedures and hazmat technician-level support to law enforcement.
In 2006-2007, LFRA and LPD conducted several joint operations in dealing with these lab sites in and around our community. Through these operations, a new level of appreciation of the specialized skills that LFRA personnel could provide to law enforcement began to evolve.
Combining forces: The TAC Fire is born
Through this new relationship, a discussion on breaching took place between firefighters and the SWAT tactical operators. The SWAT commanders requested that firefighters train the SWAT breaching team on the use of the forcible entry tools carried on the LFRA heavy rescue truck, to include power saws, torches and hydraulic entry tools, to expand the breaching capability of the SWAT team.
The next major step of building the relationship began when LPD SWAT started to request LFRA to stand by at SWAT incidents. This was something that did not happen prior to 2006.
One of the early SWAT incidents to which LFRA responded was a barricaded suicidal/homicidal subject in a duplex structure on the east side of the city. LFRA responded with an on-duty engine company and the heavy rescue apparatus along with a battalion chief. The battalion chief reported to the command post as a resource for the incident and tactical commanders.
During the operation, the SWAT tactical commander requested that a camera be placed under the garage door to get a view of the interior of the garage. Several breaching options were discussed, but the one that was ultimately selected came from the battalion chief. Firefighters quickly trained a SWAT operator on the use of a small high-pressure airbag that is generally used for vehicle extrication operations, and the operator was able to use the airbag to quietly gain enough space under the door to insert a camera.
Following this incident, leaders from LFRA and LPD came together to discuss the next steps in interagency cooperation to support law enforcement incidents. From this meeting, the LFRA Tactical Firefighting Team (TAC Fire) was initiated.
Detailing TAC Fire
TAC was established with a small contingent of firefighters who volunteered to engage in SWAT support operations. Today, these firefighters respond as a company to all SWAT incidents. In total, the TAC Fire Team is currently made up of 12 members under the leadership of a captain.
Mission: The mission of the TAC Fire Team is truly to support the SWAT team; it is not to engage in a SWAT or law enforcement role.
Weapons: The members of TAC Fire are unarmed; however, they are trained in the use of the SWAT weapons in the event that they would need to defend themselves or a fallen officer.
PPE: The members of TAC Fire are issued the same level of protection as the SWAT officers in regard to ballistic vests and helmets. On scene, the only way to identify a member of TAC Fire is by the white lettering on the vest that indicates fire-rescue. Other than this minor difference, the TAC Fire personnel blend in with the SWAT members.
TAC Fire response types
The SWAT team responds to 25-30 incidents a year. LFRA’s TAC Fire Team is attached to most of these operations, which typically involve barricaded subjects, active assailant incidents, hostage rescue, clandestine labs, warrant service and VIP protection details to provide fire-rescue support.
The role of TAC Fire covers 10 areas:
- Fire suppression planning and engagement: At each SWAT incident, the TAC Fire Team is responsible for developing a fire plan. The plan includes the route of travel, initial attack plan, water supply opportunities and location for an elevated master stream if needed. If engaged, the fire plan would be carried out under the protection of law enforcement. The initial attack and water supply operations would be completed by members of TAC Fire, and the elevated master stream operation, if needed, would likely be assigned to a responding ladder or tower company.
- Rescue of downed officers and civilians: TAC Fire members are positioned close to the entry point under the protection of SWAT to be ready for a rapid rescue of a downed officer or civilian.
- Back up to the Thompson Valley EMS (TVEMS) tactical medics (TEMS): The majority of emergency medical care falls to the TEMS medics, but in the event that they become overwhelmed with patients, TAC Fire members will perform basic life support care as needed.
- Advise on and assist with forcible entry/breaching: In many cases, the breaching team will have a member of TAC Fire advising on techniques or tools if the entry is outside of a normal residential door. Firefighters have a strong training background in forcible entry, so this is a natural fit.
- Provide ground ladder operations: Again under the protection of law enforcement, TAC Fire will position ladders as requested by tactical commanders. Firefighters are highly efficient in ground ladder skills, which makes for quicker and more efficient operations versus training SWAT operators to throw ladders.
- Rope rigging for SWAT tactical rappelling operations: LFRA trains for both urban and wilderness rope rescue operations, so applying these skills to providing rigging for tactical rappelling operations was an easy transition for members of the TAC Fire Team.
- Initiate rapid decontamination and hazmat operations/technician-level support: Having the TAC Fire members respond as a company with an engine allows for rapid gross decontamination operations if a SWAT member were to come into contact with hazardous materials during a tactical situation.
- Drive and operate the armored SWAT vehicle: Members of TAC Fire have been trained to drive and operate the armored SWAT vehicle. This frees up a SWAT member for a tactical assignment. Generally, an off-duty TAC Fire member that responds to a full team SWAT call-out would receive this assignment. Our firefighters are already trained and certified to drive large vehicles, so with some additional training on positioning the vehicle for SWAT operations, the firefighters easily fill this role when needed.
- Fire/rescue battalion chief or captain in the incident command post: Positioning the on-duty battalion chief or TAC Fire captain in the command post during the initial stages of the incident sets the stage for a unified command if the incident escalates into an event that fire-rescue has to engage in a larger role.
- Provide active assailant rescue task force (RTF) training to all LFRA operations personnel annually: In late 2013, LFRA, LPD and TVEMS began to develop a joint response procedure for active assailant responses. The initial step in this process was to identify each agency’s role in these types of responses: Police – Locate, contain and neutralize the threat; Fire – Rescue victims; EMS – Patient care and transportation.
Once the roles were defined, a response procedure was written, followed by intensive multi-agency initial training that culminated in several days of large-scale exercises.
In the years since the original program was developed, the operations procedures have been modified to closely follow the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) curriculum for active shooter incidents.
TAC training and implementation
The TAC Fire Team, in conjunction with SWAT team leadership, conducts annual active assailant training for all fire, EMS and police personnel in the three agencies, along with some additional regional partners. Specifically, for LFRA operations personnel, they receive RTF training at a minimum of once a year from the TAC Fire Team.
The only way that the TAC Fire Team can be effective in filling these roles and supporting the SWAT mission is through continual training with the SWAT team. This is accomplished through 10 hours of SWAT training per month and, generally, an annual week-long full-team training at an off-site military location. This training is key to working toward skill mastery in TAC Fire operations but, more importantly, gaining the trust of the SWAT leadership and operators.
The costs of the team, the added training requirements, and the time committed to incidents do pay off for the community. This has been proven on multiple occasions, but none bigger than in 2019 during a SWAT operation.
A member of the SWAT entry team sustained a gunshot to his tactical helmet just above his eye from an assailant at close range. Within seconds of the shot, the rest of the entry team had the shooter neutralized, and TAC Fire members entered the structure and removed him from the hot zone and into the care of TEMS medics. The members of TAC Fire carried out the mission of the team and of LFRA that evening. It says on the side of the apparatus Loveland Fire & Rescue Authority – and the TAC Fire team performed a rescue of the downed officer.
Growing an enhanced response capability, together
A huge consideration with the TAC Fire Team concept is mission creep. In other words, when does the role of the team cross the line from fire-rescue to a law enforcement role?
The LFRA command staff and TAC Fire captain are continually monitoring this to ensure that the team stays within the fire-rescue lanes. The existence of the team is built on the very solid relationship between LPD and LFRA. One of the major factors for success has been the leadership of both organizations allowing the TAC Fire and SWAT team members to grow and develop this enhanced response capability.
About the author
Greg Ward is the division chief of operations for the Loveland (Colorado) Fire Rescue Authority (LFRA). He has spent the last 25 years with LFRA as an engineer, lieutenant, battalion chief and training battalion chief. Ward has over 30 years in the fire service, serving LFRA, Berthoud Fire Protection District, Black Forest Fire Rescue District and the U.S. Air Force. He is the coordinator for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Fire Officer II certification classes, the chairman of the Colorado Governor’s Board for Fire Training and Certification and serves on the Aims Community College Fire Science Advisory Board. Ward is proud to be a third-generation Colorado firefighter-chief officer.