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ABCs of In-Progress Calls

Keep an evolving call under control by assessing, relying on basics, and containing the area.

December 20, 2012  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.
Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.

In-progress calls evolve within a framework of controlled chaos. Though this framework includes many variables, I can identify the three most common that detract from our efforts: officers wanting to talk on the radio at the same time, officers focusing on catching the bad guy as individuals instead of members of a team, and officers and supervisors alike ignoring basic response fundamentals. You can help improve your management of the situation by remembering the ABCs of in-progress calls: Assess the situation, Basics rule the day, and Contain it or lose it.

Assess the Situation

Whatever the call, assessing the situation will let you determine what resources you need and what tactics you will employ. Far too often officers go half-cocked into a situation and waste valuable time and resources that they may need later on. All it takes is for a supervisor to ask a few questions and filter the answers in order to make the best decisions possible. Once a supervisor starts making decisions, it's hard to change paths, so the choices need to be good early on.

The problem with not having information is it creates a void. It is human nature to fill in this void with either information based on past experience or with imagination. Either way, chances are that if you're missing information you will make poor decisions up front, which will cost you later on as the call progresses.

You should always be prepared to get a basic response rolling. Once that's done, the next focus should be on getting a unit to the scene as soon as possible to get up-to-date information. Remember, dispatch only gives you the information they receive. They are a conduit for raw information that has yet to be confirmed.

Any experienced officer knows that the information you initially receive is not always correct. It's not the dispatchers' fault, as they are just repeating the answers they get to their questions. But that first officer on the scene needs to size up the situation, confirm or deny any information, and relay back to the supervisor an update as to status and legitimacy of the call.

There was a time when agencies would just roll anything they felt they needed as a matter of routine. However, in these times of lean budgets and diminishing resources, you need to be mindful of using your assets carefully. What you expend now may not be available later. My experience has taught me that if the supervisor starts an initial response and gives it a few extra minutes, he or she will get the information needed to formulate an informed response.

Obviously, if left with no other choice, you plan for the worst and adjust later. But that's not the same thing as just arbitrarily throwing resources at a problem you have yet to clearly identify because you didn't take the time to do so.

Basics Rule the Day

The basics will always get you through any situation. It's the foundation we have all used to build our careers on. The problem these days is that people accept mediocrity and hope things will somehow work out, and administrators have cut too much training—even the basics. We are starting to fail at the very tasks we want accomplished because we no longer train for them.

For example, when was the last time your agency trained with your K-9 Unit on perimeters, did any training at roll call, or gave the Incident Command System anything but lip service? We have a great deal of post-9/11 gear, but how helpful is it if no one knows how to perform the simplest tasks effectively? It's nice if you look cool in your MultiCam uniforms and have AR-15s that look like they came from Star Wars, but they won't help you set up a perimeter.

It's never too late to start focusing on the basics again. Incorporate them into your next standardized response. For example, say a call for a burglary in progress goes out. The two closest responding units should already know their specific assignments.

The first unit hustles to the scene and confirms that there was, in fact, a crime and checks for prosecution. The unit then confirms or updates any information for re-broadcast to everyone else responding. This helps prevent driving past the suspect because of receiving the wrong description. Simultaneously, the same unit starts controlling the crime scene with an emphasis on securing the last known point the suspect entered and or existed. This is a must if you plan to use K-9s for establishing a track later.

With that accomplished, the second unit is free to establish a command post and start setting up a perimeter. They have also volunteered by default to be the incident scribes. They direct responding units where to deploy and document it until the supervisor gets on scene and takes over full command. Afterwards, they continue documenting positions, decisions, and instructions to avoid any duplication of effort. Obviously, this frees up the supervisor to accomplish other necessary command-level tasks.

Another basic element to a structured response is incorporating a simple numbering system to identify the sides of a building for responding units. Whatever you deem to be the front of the building, label it as side one. Going in a counterclockwise direction, give the remaining three sides numbers two through four. Calling out, "I have side three," gives an exact picture for everyone to see and makes it easier for a supervisor to track unit locations.

With this system you can also easily call out a specific corner because it is just a matter of combining two sides. The phrase, "I have corner three-four," immediately lets everyone know that officer is in the back right-hand corner of the building.

If you have an area with many buildings, just identify the building with a number and break it down the same way. You coul call out your location as, "I have side one, building one." In a larger perimeter you can still identify your location by calling out the street, nearest intersection, or landmark. If you have an inner and outer perimeter, you can use a combination of both.

Contain It or Lose It

Your job is always about control. Often, this involves not letting the situation get out of hand. One of the best tools for keeping an in-progress call in check is setting up a good perimeter at the outset. This line is meant to keep the suspects in and those not involved out. Wisdom dictates that when making a perimeter during an in-progress call, you make the perimeter larger rather than smaller. This maximizes your chances of keeping the suspect within your containment area. If you make this area too small, your suspect may already be outside your perimeter or, worse, the person could easily slip out.

While on perimeter, all officers need to have their emergency lights on and pay attention to their surroundings. The desired outcome is that every time any suspects try to flee the area, they will see a marked unit. This keeps them pinned down so that K-9s and or aviation units can find them. This is not the time for officers to be talking on the phone, working on their in-car computers, or goofing off listening to a football game on the FM radio. Also, if K-9s are tracking you need to shut off your car so the carbon monoxide from the exhaust doesn't kill the scent trail.

No matter what your duties are, and no matter how simple or basic they seem, they all must be performed at your best effort. No one individual catches anyone; it's always the result of a team effort.

Learning Your ABCs

If you ignore these ABCs during an in-progress, you'll end up with a haphazard mess that turns possible success into definite failure. Without the ABC structure, responding officers just flood the area and tie up radio traffic with conjecture.

In a structured response that uses the ABCs, sending an officer to the scene immediately to secure the scene and update information is critical. Setting up a command post and perimeter are equally as critical. Having a scribe taking notes is a God send on a complicated call.

I once had a sergeant tell me he didn't like my structured approach because he was a real cop and worked using his intuition instead. The problem was, his intuition often sucked and he failed more times than he succeeded. You could always tell when his squad was working because there was a flurry of activity on the radio that never went anywhere. If they did find the suspect it was despite their efforts and not because of it.

We all want to catch the bad guy, but if the response is just a race to see who gets the pretty ribbon, then nothing will ever get done. It takes more than the desire to catch the bad guy to be a good cop; it takes a commitment to get the job done, no matter the tasks required to do so. One sure recipe for success on a call is embracing the basics and not turning your back on them.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.


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