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How to get a rescue task force off the ground

As tactical teams move to the role of support units during an active shooter incident, the Rescue Task Force concept is evolving to become a key part of MCI response


Medical personnel tend to a victim following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Law enforcement agencies across the United States are creating rescue task forces as a preferred response model to an active shooter incident. A rescue task force team includes law enforcement to provide force protection and medical teams, typically comprised of fire and EMS personnel, to treat the wounded during an active threat. If your agency has formed a rescue task force, what top tips do you have for ongoing training? Email

Two clocks are running from the moment an active shooter incident begins; the shooter’s clock and the victim’s clock. One clock is concerned with living; one clock is concerned with dying. The shooter has to shoot as many people as possible before being stopped. The victim (casualty) has a period, depending on their trauma, where they can still be treated and live. The idea behind rescue task forces is to start working on the victim’s clock.

Look for employment

What’s the driving force for police in active shooter? Stopping the threat? Wrong. The goal is saving lives. The best way to do that is, yes, stopping the threat. However, only a small group of warriors are going to get their names on that plaque. If the first or second contact teams get into the building and can stop the threat, then you’ve stopped the killing. The waves of officers to follow should be looking for wounded to stop the dying.

I’m not saying contact teams should ignore the shooter and start applying tourniquets. You cannot treat people faster than the killer can shoot them and there’s no medicine in a gunfight. I’m saying look for employment. If you have no driving force indicating the shooter’s location (gunshots, people pointing down the hall or 911 details), then don’t start passing up casualties that can be easily treated in minutes. If you enter the hot zone and you have no driving force taking you somewhere else, then you are currently unemployed. If you cannot find a gunfight then look for employment; your driving force then becomes saving lives as you go.

Bleeding control should always be done under the umbrella of armed officers in your team holding cover. Punch into a room, clear it and now you’ve just set up a mini warm zone to treat people. If you start to hear gunshots, screams or get updated information, then your driving force changes and it’s time to go after the threat. Treat the wounded and relay your position to the outside world so rescue task force (RTF) teams can get in there and finish the treatment you started.

Bleeding control

Cops throughout the country are getting updated with IFAK kits to carry with them. Our kits are attached to a level four vest in our cars. We’ll begin carrying in life-saving equipment in the first wave. If your department still hasn’t focused on bleeding control, get with the times.

One of our deputies saved a civilian at a car accident with a femoral bleed. Standing there, not being able to help and saying, “Hold on, the bird is on the way” is a statement of the past. Train your cops on bleeding control (B-CON). Tourniquets are a good start, but IFAK kits have hemostatic gauze, compression bandages, vented chest seals, nasal airways, a sharpie and shears. If I can use this stuff on an uncontrolled bleed or sucking chest wound, then you can too.

Learn ICS

The toughest job is going to be for command outside the hot zone. I didn’t say the deadliest or most high-risk job, just the toughest. There’s a mountain of tasks to be completed outside the building. Think of an orchestra. Everyone is a master at playing their instrument, they know the music and they’re dressed and ready. Without an efficient conductor, they’re sunk. Now, imagine 12 orchestras playing in the same parking lot with 12 different conductors (and another 20 thinking they should be conductors). Who’s in charge?

Firefighters have had this down for decades. Ever wonder how your fire department gets so many other agencies together at a fire and they all work seamlessly? The answer is an incident command system (ICS). They pull a MABAS card (or whatever you call it in your area) and boom – the cavalry is there. The cavalry also knows exactly what to do, where to report and what to bring. Wouldn’t that be nice for us to know? Start getting your department trained with ICS. Get into a classroom with an instructor for ICS 300 & 400 level classes. The training is typically free. Try to find a cop instructor, as they can relate to you how ICS works in our environment. Bosses, this is important for every big incident in your community whether it’s a flood, tornado or riots.

Now that you know it, work ICS constantly into your daily calls and bring in fire. Every call that requires multiple squads should be an automatic ICS style set up. At an accident scene that requires fire response, start assigning an officer or boss to attach to fire command. Start building those relationships, expertise and networking at a car accident so when you have a full-blown active shooter call, it’s not the first time you’ve worked alongside fire. This is a perishable skill if not used. Don’t get rusty. Have a 10-minute ICS scenario at every supervisor meeting. Have a 10-minute ICS tabletop training every week or month during roll call.

“Fire won’t come on board with us”

That’s because you don’t know what you’re doing yet. I don’t blame them. There are too many unknowns. They could get hurt. We don’t have the training. Fix yourselves first. Once you’ve rolled out everything above and have it mastered, then you can explain to fire how you, as cops, went outside of your comfort zone to do a bit of what they do. Now it’s their turn.

I wouldn’t walk, unarmed, into an active shooter call unless I was convinced that the people I was going in with were top notch. Be top notch.

Show fire what you are doing, why you are doing it and how they can help. Not every fire department will buy into it. Most will because they, too, are warriors. If you still get nowhere, ask them to attend your training and see how they could help. Firefighters secretly wish they were cops so tap into that and they’ll come around eventually. Or is it us that wish we were firefighters? I forget.

“We don’t have the money”

If your fire department can’t train your cops on B-CON then look for other training opportunities. One of the best training courses in the country is free. Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training is a two-day course from Texas State University that’s funded by the federal government. They’ll come to you with everything and there’s no cost. ALERRT II is where the rubber meets the road regarding RTF. It’s for cops and fire to work together. No budget? Well, now you have no excuse.

“Everybody is ready…now what?”

Your cops are trained and your fire department is ready to go – perfect. Now it gets tough and complex. Why is there not a one-size-fits-all style RTF for the country? There is and there can’t be. Let me explain. ICS is your one-size-fits-all response to the incident. But how your department rolls out your RTF is going to be based on too many factors to be a single sheet of music for the country.

For instance, Pleasant Prairie RTF looks far different than the RTF in San Diego. Our response is way different and probably too heavily reliant on other agencies to follow a model of a big city. A big city would want nothing to do with our style because it wouldn’t work for them. We’ll run out of resources almost immediately and need other agencies to fill gaps. A big city typically will not. There’s not a one-size-fits-all because there are too many sizes. There are, however, some best practice articles available from lessons learned.

Follow ICS to get you close. Train with neighboring agencies. Have the meeting and the tough talks. Then, when you think you’re all set, have a training day (cops, fire, SWAT and telecommunicators all training together). Your local schools will allow you to run it there when school isn’t in session. Figure out what will work and understand your limitations and capabilities. Most agencies are going to run out of resources quickly and there will be a lull. When you finally have a handle on the scene, then that will be the time when the cavalry will arrive.

Train for both limited resources and abundant resources – you’ll need to know both.

The biggest problem is always communication. The best way to fix that is to identify the gaps in training. The best way we’ve found is to have a representative from each discipline at every level of command. If the tactical group supervisor needs to know what perimeter is doing, the group supervisor will turn to the person who is in charge of the perimeter who is standing right next to him or her. Don’t make it too complex or it will get away from you quickly. You’ll understand once you start doing it. If this is confusing, go back to the car accident example.

The changing role of SWAT

I’m on a Tactical Response Team (SWAT), and when we rolled out RTF with our police and fire departments we learned some hard lessons. Our job was not what we thought it would be if this ever happened. Yours won’t be either. The operators (by the time they arrive) will most likely be batting clean-up and ushering in more RTF teams.

We trained for years that we, as SWAT, would go in and get the bad guy. We can move through hallways better, shoot better and communicate better than anyone else and we trained like it. We’ll rush in and save the day. This wasn’t our experience at all in training for RTF with ICS. The initial SWAT operators who happen to be working will get inside to stop the bad guy, but most will not, at least not immediately. Most will be loading up in the Bearcat with RTF and moving to different areas called in by contact teams (patrol) inside the building. We learned we’d have to work with patrol and the tactical group supervisor to get orders. This was a big eye-opener for us.

Operators, start thinking about what your job will be at something like this and start training that way. Gone are the days of a full team punching into a building and taking care of it. Tactical teams will be more of a support unit; we didn’t see that until we practiced in a bigger drill. It took us a while, but now the light bulb is on. The best way to figure out how things will (or should) go down is to train it with everyone. This is not to say that SWAT will not be used for a specialized extraction or possibly to relieve patrol but don’t expect the big jobs when you get there – they may be all gone.

Go to staging

At a fire, every fire department needs to check in to command before deploying assets. We need to be doing the same thing. Don’t just rush into the building if there is a command post.

At first, that command post will be the hood of a car or in an SUV. As more people arrive, the command post will move farther back; however, that initial spot may be used as a jump-off for more contact and RTF teams. We refer to it as the Tactical Operations Center. Find staging and check in to get your orders. If there is no command post established, then make sure you communicate with the team(s) inside before you go in. This will alleviate a blue-on-blue, redundancy of checking areas and it will help coordinate resources. Several after-action reviews discuss the chaos because nobody knew what anyone else was doing.

If you’re a boss who arrives and teams have already gone in, the best place for you is outside. Your best pieces of equipment will be your radio, cell phone, pen and a legal pad. Start working ICS and start having people report to you. You’ve just become incident command, staging and tactical operations. As soon as another boss arrives, start passing off duties.

Don’t leave firefighters alone – ever

Your RTF team gets inside and you make a warm zone in an office room. They’re treating casualties and you hear more gunshots. Now what? Have an immediate action plan in place. It can be as simple as “Guys, if we hear gunshots, Denise and I are going and you guys stay here with fire.” Whatever your plan, do not leave fire alone inside that building. They need at least one armed officer with them at all times for overwatch.

Casualty collection points

Set up a casualty collection point. That way the RTF teams can respond to a single location to treat casualties. RTF should not be entering the building until you have a destination for them where there are casualties. This will rely heavily on effective communication. If you can bring all the casualties to one area, great. If not, that is okay too. Once that CCP area is known then your contact teams who are waiting at staging should start forming into RTF teams with the mission of heading to the wounded.

Pick a boss

I don’t care who it is, but someone needs to be in charge of every contact team, every RTF team, staging, tactical and medical. Those bosses should be the only ones on the air unless it is critical information. For instance, you have three contact teams and two RTF teams inside. That means you have five bosses all reporting to a tactical operations boss outside. That tactical operations boss should have someone from fire command with them to organize both sides of the equation.

Tactical operations has a boss at the incident command post. At the command center, that boss also has fire attached to them. The command center is talking to staging to see how many more RTF teams are ready to go. Confused yet? Try doing it for real without training. Don’t get discouraged, a year ago I had a headache just looking at the chart wondering how the heck we’re going to make this happen. Trust me, it’s time well spent.

It’s slow-moving

The wheels of justice turn slow. This will take you about a year to get up and running. There are too many meetings, policies and red tape to make it go faster. Once that’s all done and everyone can finally play nice in the sandbox, then you’ll have your big day of training with everyone. Then you’ll go back and re-work policies and SOPs because this didn’t work or that was not how you envisioned it.

Don’t get discouraged. Keep chugging along. Lives will be saved because of it and that is your driving force.

This article, originally published 11/02/2016, has been updated.

Lieutenant Paul Marik began his career working undercover straight out of the academy. He is currently a Lieutenant Commander with the Pleasant Prairie (WI) Police. Paul has been with the PPPD since 1997 and is the senior trainer for the department. He holds a B.S. and an M.B.A. He is an instructor for Firearms, Defense & Arrest Tactics, Use of Force, Honor Guard and he is a master instructor in Tactical Response and Scenarios. Paul is also a Certified Force Science Analyst. He has investigated several use-of-force situations in southeastern Wisconsin and is an active member of ILEETA.