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Critical Incident Drills: Staging a Dress Rehearsal

Law enforcement officers and other public safety personnel can learn much from conducting a critical incident drill. But producing one is not easy.

June 30, 2015  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Team One Network
Photo: Team One Network

It's long been said and constantly been proven that there are some things human beings just can't learn by reading a book or sitting in a classroom. People learn by doing. And that's absolutely true in law enforcement operations, where there is no substitute for experience.

Here in the second decade of the 21st century, every American law enforcement agency needs its officers to know what to do in case of a critical incident, particularly one involving an active shooter. But fortunately, very few officers actually have real experience with this horror. So the next best thing is to stage a simulation of such an event to give officers a dress rehearsal, so to speak, for the real thing.

Staging an active shooter or other critical incident exercise is not easy. It involves a lot of resources and the need for buy-in not only from your agency's executives but from other law enforcement and public safety entities in your area, as well as use of a school or business building in your community. Oh, and some funding.

Before a sheriff or chief is going to sign off on committing resources to a practical critical incident exercise, you will have to convince him or her of need. And he or she will likely be more receptive to the idea if you have done some work and determined what bugs need to be worked out in your response plan.

Around the Table

One way to reveal issues in your response plan that need to be worked out in a practical drill is to hold a tabletop exercise. A tabletop is essentially a tactical or strategic problem presented by one or more persons and worked out by a group of individuals in the same room.

Tabletop law enforcement exercises have a lot of value. They bring together the public safety leaders who will have to work together in a real incident and help them get on the same page or at least understand each other's positions before the real thing.

"A tabletop is a non-stressful situation where [public safety commanders] can have a presentation of each department's capabilities by that department's representatives and then have an open discussion among their peers of how they would handle a real incident," says Capt. Philip Fontanetta of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Fontanetta, who heads the LAPD's emergency operations division, recommends that a tabletop exercise not be too comfortable for the participants. "I like to ratchet it up a notch and make the participants deal with cascading effects. You can have an incident within an incident, and that can make a tabletop much more lively," he says.

What you often learn from a tabletop exercise is that some responders may have a mistaken idea of what will happen in an actual critical incident, especially one involving an active killer. Gary Monreal, a retired Wisconsin SWAT officer and an instructor for the law enforcement training company Team One Network, says he once was involved in an active shooter exercise where Fire/EMS commanders were adamant that their personnel would enter the building and attend to the wounded while the shooter was still active.

"When we actually did a couple of training scenarios involving that concept, they quickly realized it was a logistical nightmare. I couldn't spare an officer to guard them," Monreal explains. "I have to allocate all of my resources to the highest threat we're still facing. And that means I have to have every gun hunting the shooter."

Tabletops and other meetings of key public safety personnel in your community are also excellent ways to determine not just each organization's role during the real thing but also any bureaucratic or legal issues that need to be agreed upon to facilitate better response such as the need for memorandums of agreement.

The Planning Stage

A tabletop exercise is a good first step toward planning a full-scale drill, but it's a baby step compared to a live training event. The amount of personnel and resources needed to conduct a practical critical incident training drill is substantial, and it will require cooperation from the executives of each agency involved.

"With a full-scale exercise you're looking at the ability to deploy equipment and personnel, establish communications, and set up a unified command post," Fontanetta says. "It's a challenging environment, and there are a lot of moving parts."

Because a full-scale exercise is so complicated, it takes time to plan one and set it up. And the more complicated the exercise, the more time it takes.

There's no more complicated series of public safety training exercises in America than Northern California's Urban Shield, a 48-hour, multi-part training marathon for law enforcement tactical teams and other critical responders that has been held since 2007 in the Bay Area and is organized by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.

Capt. Shawn Sexton of the Alameda County SO is the incident commander for the upcoming Urban Shield 2015. He says scenario planning for Urban Shield takes about six months. Of course, Urban Shield—which last year involved 35 tactical law enforcement teams, 37 fire department teams, and nine explosive ordnance disposal teams from numerous jurisdictions working dozens of exercises—is very different from a single exercise in a single jurisdiction. Still, Sexton and other experts say officers planning a full-scale critical incident exercise should take a hint from Urban Shield's planners and start their planning well in advance.

The Scenario

The first step in planning is to decide what type of training you want to conduct in your exercise and then create a scenario that encompasses that training. A good scenario for a full-scale exercise with multiple agencies and public safety disciplines involved will likely involve more than one stream of training. "You need to develop a scenario that is based on real tactics and needs," says Sexton.

Fontanetta agrees and cautions against getting too creative. "I do not build any exercises with surprises," he says. "There is nothing in our exercises that we haven't trained to."

Developing a full-scale practical critical incident exercise is sort of like producing a movie. You need a detailed script of the scenario, you need a location, you need equipment, and you need cast and crew. You also have a budget for what you want to produce. All of these things have to be coordinated, which means you have a lot to manage. Sexton says planners of critical incident drills should take the same approach to their exercises as the Urban Shield staff. "Urban Shield looks like it's a quite large and complex thing, and it is," he says. "But it's all possible because it's broken down into manageable pieces."

Safety First

One of the most critical pieces of a critical incident drill is the safety plan. As the director of the exercise, it's your job to look at it through the lens of risk management. It's not about what is likely to happen; it's about what could happen. And this is especially true if you are planning to use civilian role players. "You have to be very cautious when you involve civilians," says Team One Network's Monreal. "Don't just plan for what you want the role players to do. You have to plan for what they could do."

To identify potential hazards at your training site, walk through the training area several times with your safety team. "You need to look for hazards and have a medical plan and medical team in place in case of injuries," says Fontanetta.

And if you're running a force-on-force scenario, then firearms modified for marking rounds or airsoft pellet-firing replicas will likely be part of the scenario. That means you will need experienced safety officers to check and double-check each participating officer for live weapons before he or she enters the exercise site. Be particularly vigilant if any of the officers leave the site after being checked and then return for additional training. A number of terrible training accidents have occurred because officers left the training area for lunch or some other reason, reacquired their live duty weapons, and mistakenly brought real guns back into training.

You also have to protect the surrounding area and prevent people from tying up emergency resources calling in false alarms about your exercise. Fontanetta, who has conducted more than 50 full-scale critical incident exercises, says it's critical to notify the people living around the site and the surrounding businesses in the area where you are planning a drill and to do so several times. For example, his team just conducted an active shooter exercise at a shopping mall. "We knew before we scheduled that exercise that we would have to make sure every tenant was notified. Otherwise, there would have been one person trapped in an office calling 911," he says.

Making It Real

Many critical incident training exercises now include elements of "realism" such as role-players who have been made up with horrific moulage wounds or using weapons that fire marking rounds. That's the cool stuff. But the elements of realism that should most concern you are the ones that will affect officer performance during a real incident.

Some active shooters have barricaded themselves inside a building, so you can add real tactical complications by requiring your officers to overcome such obstacles in order to gain access to the building.

Another debilitating problem that officers often must deal with during critical incidents is noise. During a real active shooter incident, fire alarms may be blaring, people will be screaming, and gunshots will echo down the halls, making it extremely difficult for officers to determine the location of the shooter. One way that some exercise directors duplicate this experience is by adding such noises with portable stereos or even more substantial sound systems and by having role players create as much panic noise as possible. Activating the fire alarms can also be an option, just make sure the fire department is onboard with the idea and the alarm doesn't automatically trigger a fire suppression system.

The purpose of all that noise is to impede communications. Much is made of comm problems at critical incidents because of radio interoperability issues, but Monreal says a comm problem that many officers fail to consider is the communication difficulties that will hinder the response team that is hunting for an active killer inside a building. He teaches his students to use basic hand signals and even yell to communicate in the din.

Lessons Learned

Agencies that have conducted full-scale critical incident exercises say there are many lessons to be learned.

One of the most important is the need to prevent blue-on-blue casualties when plainclothes officers, off-duty officers, and even legally armed civilians are on the scene.

"You can't have plainclothes officers on site in tactical pants and black polos, and carrying guns on the site. If you look at the photos of the Mumbai attack, that's what the terrorists were wearing. So you need to have a way to identify plainclothes officers on the scene," Fontanetta says. He also recommends that when plainclothes officers respond that they wear "POLICE" jackets or other ID.

Monreal says there are many lessons to be learned from conducting full-scale exercises, but he says the most important thing to teach the officer participants is they have to act. "I want them to understand that responding to an active shooter is all about decision making. When should you go in? How many officers do you need?"

Fontanetta says that even the directors of a full-scale exercise learn from producing them. "We've learned that one of the most important best practices for exercises is to ask the participants for an after-action report." He adds that the information in the reports is often used to develop the next training scenario.


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