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SWAT and beyond: Pole cameras have many uses

Along with complementary tools like flex and under door cameras, they can prepare teams for nearly any situation

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Pole cameras can be extraordinarily useful for high-stakes situations like hostage events, barricaded subjects and searches for armed perpetrators. But that’s far from their only uses.

Tactical Electronics

Sponsored by Tactical Electronics

By John Erich, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

When you think about pole cameras, the first use that comes to mind may be SWAT scenarios. And indeed, these tools can be extraordinarily useful for high-stakes situations like hostage events, barricaded subjects and searches for armed perpetrators. If officers need a peek up some stairs or around a corner, a pole camera can safely provide it.

But that’s far from the only use for devices like Tactical ElectronicsCORE and SWIFT pole cameras.

“There’s not a whole lot of limitation to how you can use them,” said Curtis Sprague, a law enforcement veteran who now heads Tactical Electronics’ sales in the Western U.S. and Mexico, as well as for key federal agencies. “We get a lot of feedback from our law enforcement customers about how they use them. One big use is for things like explosive sweeps of VIP events. Say you have the president coming to town for an event down at the local arena. Bomb squads will need to go in and sweep that place beforehand. When you’re talking about checking areas like light fixtures and overhead railings and scaffolding, a pole camera can really cut down the time it takes.”

Or think about vehicle checks in sensitive places like secure facilities or border crossings. Checkpoints could function more efficiently (and be easier on those who conduct them) with pole cameras scanning passing undercarriages and the tops of large trucks.

There are also border applications beyond the four-wheeled: If a sensor trips out in a border-control sector, agents can respond to the scene, raise a CORE camera atop its longest (17 feet extended) pole, and use its thermal vision to spot individuals crossing illegally. This function can also power things like searches for missing persons or fleeing suspects.

The multiple camera heads that can attach to Tactical Electronics’ CORE Pole Grip expand those capabilities even further. Need to know what’s behind that door? The Under Door Camera – just a quarter-inch thick – attaches to the pole and standard CORE Grips and slides unobtrusively beneath it, providing up to four views (forward, up, left and right) of the space beyond. Video streams wirelessly to the CORE Monitor, and high-intensity infrared illumination can be controlled directly or remotely.

Firefighters clearing buildings can benefit the same way from that under-door intelligence. And all Tactical Electronics’ Pole Grip-compatible heads – which also include a Flex Camera – might be useful on something like a rubble pile following a building collapse.

With all three camera heads at the ready, teams are equipped to see nearly anywhere. Tactical Electronics even got a request a few years back from a rocket company that needed help inspecting a rocket in its launch silo. Without excess space to insert a traditional camera, the company found a solution with a pole camera.

“There are just so many uses,” said Sprague. “There’s really no aspect of law enforcement where these tools couldn’t be put to use, and a lot of areas in the private sector too.”

A few tools provide many answers

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Thermal fusion technology overlays a thermal image onto a traditional camera view.

Tactical Electronics

Still, lives are often directly on the line when SWAT teams are involved. Among the many uses of Tactical Electronics’ CORE and SWIFT pole cameras, SWAT types of purposes – barricaded individuals, hostage situations, etc. – are therefore among the most essential.

There are many important considerations around these kinds of incidents, both before tactical teams are activated and as they operate. The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Law Enforcement Policy Center discussed some general principles in a 2020 document, “Response to Barricaded Individuals.” This offers broad guidance for the initial moments of such scenes, when key intelligence must be gathered.

When developing policies and procedures for barricaded subjects and suspects, the IACP document said, agencies must address how they will:

  • Verify the individual is within the identified location.
  • Determine whether that person is barricaded.
  • Evaluate whether they’re a subject or a suspect, based in part on whether they’re armed.
  • Determine when specialized assistance is needed.

Initial response priorities involve intelligence- and information-gathering, such as assessing the individual’s options and means to execute any plans, a physical/clothing description, the presence of weapons, and structure/location information.

That’s a lot SWAT teams and others on such scenes need to know – and a lot of reasons to get eyes into the environment. Carrying just a few key tools from both the CORE and SWIFT lines can achieve that.

Both the CORE Grip and various-length Pole Grips can easily attach to CORE Pole, Flex and Under Door cameras, as well as Tactical Electronics’ CORE Articulating Scope, for multiple uses and remote views of fraught situations. That lets responders travel light yet still be ready for a wide range of scenarios. Handheld SWIFT Pole, Flex and Under Door cameras are compact and streamlined for rapid use by teams or single officers.

Both pole cameras enable reconnaissance into high spaces, through windows, around corners and over walls. Thermal vision (and, in CORE cameras, Thermal Fusion technology), along with multiple lighting options, provides clear views of nearly any situation. Video streams wirelessly to the CORE Monitor, TE1 Monocular and TE View app for Android devices.

How useful can that be? Ask the Tactical Electronics client that recently confronted a suspect hiding in an attic.

“He had concealed himself under the insulation,” recalled Sprague. “They put the pole camera up in the attic with the white lights turned up full, flooding the attic with light, trying to locate this guy. He was being very still under the insulation. They thought he was there, but they couldn’t be sure, so they turned off the white light and turned on the infrared, which he couldn’t see. So when the guy saw the white light go away, he thought they left and poked his head up. With the IR they spotted him right away.”

For views under doors and through similar slivers of space, the under-door camera (in one-, two- and four-camera configurations) easily replaces the pole camera.

“Simply hot-swap the camera heads, and if you’re using the 17-footer, now you have 17 feet of standoff distance to run that under-door camera down the hallway and underneath for a view into that room,” explained Sprague. “There’s a camera head on the distal tip that looks forward and up into the room at about a 30-degree angle, so you can see people walking around. Hitting a button switches you to a secondary upward-looking view.”

If the room is cleared of people, that camera can also tell you if the door is barricaded or, even worse, booby-trapped, allowing development of an appropriate breaching plan. “Back when I was working, even with a mirror on stick, you just had to open the door and find out what was behind it by way of surprise,” added Sprague. “That’s just not the best way to do it.”

Flex cameras provide views into things like packages, devices and even smaller spaces. The articulating scope is a useful EOD tool (Tactical Electronics additionally offers training in neutralizing explosives and on other topics), typically used with the handheld grip. The CORE Pole Camera, Under Door Camera, Pole Grip and CORE Monitor can be purchased together in a package called the CORE Tactical Kit. The CORE Team Kit includes all cameras, grips and monitors.

The SWIFT Pole, Flex and Under Door cameras provide similar advantages in simplified, lightweight packages for smaller departments and individual officers. The biggest SWIFT Flex Camera, which combines visible and thermal views, is just 18.3 inches long, and the SWIFT Under Door Camera is small enough to carry in a double M4 mag pouch.

The right tools save lives

To underscore why it matters to have the right surveillance tools for the most challenging situations, consider a frightening case that occurred a decade ago in Alabama. On January 29, 2013, disturbed Vietnam vet Jimmy Lee Dykes boarded a school bus, killed the driver and took five-year-old Ethan Gilman hostage. Dykes held the child for six days in a small underground bunker defended with bombs.

Police negotiated with Dykes through a PVC ventilation pipe, to no avail. Dykes wanted to commit suicide on live television and was training Gilman to detonate the bunker’s explosives.

An FBI hostage rescue team ultimately acted on February 4 after Dykes became increasingly agitated and a hidden camera inserted into the bunker showed him brandishing a gun. They breached the roof with explosives, deployed stun grenades and killed Dykes in the resulting gunfight. Two improvised explosive devices were found in the bunker, but Gilman was rescued unharmed.

Officials never elaborated on exactly what camera was used or how, confirming only that it was “high-tech surveillance equipment” inserted secretly into the confined space. But the event demonstrated the irreplaceable value of having a complete array of cameras and other equipment that can function surreptitiously in close quarters to provide tactical insight when lives are on the line.

Ethan Gilman likely owes them his.

To learn more, visit Tactical Electronics.

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