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Cover Story

SWAT Teams Take on Fire and Smoke

Tactical teams learn from firefighters how to handle smoke and heat when fire rears its ugly flaming head.

December 01, 2001  |  by Kevin Danaher

A violent family fight has erupted in a residence. The wife has filed for divorce and for sole custody of the couple's 8-year-old daughter. The husband is distraught and, in a fit of rage, stabs his wife. She managed to call 911 and the response unit includes SWAT and hostage units. The husband is holding his daughter hostage and demands that he get to leave with her.

The husband grows increasingly despondent and says he is going to kill his daughter and himself. To keep SWAT officers from entering he sets his home on fire and retreats to a back bedroom. The only way to rescue the young girl is to make an entry. Is your team prepared to deal with the hazards of fire and smoke?

Have You Considered the Risks?

While most tactical teams spend countless hours training on movement, tactics and firearms proficiency, they spend little time dealing with the dangers of fire and explosives. What preparations has your team made for moving in a smoke environment? Have you considered what uniform and equipment you are wearing and how those items would react if exposed to high levels of heat? Have you considered the explosive power of natural gas when a suspect turns on a stove and fills a residence with gas? Have you looked closely at the type of munitions you are using and considered that you may accidentally initiate a fire with your delivery of those devices?

The Tucson, Ariz., SWAT team had a series of incidents that caused them to seriously reflect on their readiness for situations involving fire, smoke and explosions. Several times on search warrants, distraction devices have started fires because of where they were dropped.

CS gas deployments resulted in fires, including one case in which a 37mm device fell into tall grass after bouncing off a window frame, burning down two abandoned houses at a training location. At another house, in trying to subdue a suicidal person, an officer used a stingball grenade  that rolled into a closet, set clothing on fire and caused the house to burn down.

Although protective gear such as eye protection and balaclavas can be uncomfortable or seem unnecessary for most calls, they can be essential to your survival when a fire occurs.

In another incident, a suspect taped his windows shut, turned on the gas from the stove and "flicked his Bic" lighter as he shot himself in the head. His intent was to blow up the SWAT team outside his third floor apartment. Fortunately for the SWAT team, the concentration of gas was not right for an explosive mixture.

Following these incidents Tucson made changes in its training and deployment for SWAT. A complete review showed the need to reevaluate the effectiveness and safety of the SWAT deployment uniform and munitions selection. This reassessment led to specialized training with the local gas company and the Tucson Fire Department.

Reassess Your Fire Preparedness

When determining a standard uniform for SWAT teams, you need to look for protection from not only the dangers of edged weapons and bullets, but also from fire and smoke hazards. Review your own uniform from head to foot. There are trade-offs for speed, ease of motion, visibility and ballistic protection, but they all come at a price. You must consider all aspects of hazards you are likely to face, then select the best balance for your particular agency and mission.

Kevlar helmets protect the head from a variety of bullets and falling objects, although they are uncomfortable. Eye protection is essential, but know the flash point of the material so you are not wearing something that can melt into your face when exposed to extreme heat. Balaclavas are considered to be non- "media friendly" by some, but they can protect the face from burns and close detonations of distraction devices.

The uniform itself should be reviewed for the protection it offers in a fire environment. Some materials, such as nylon, will melt. If you wear a long sleeve shirt, roll the sleeves down. Your exposed skin can not only be burned, but also can be scraped and scratched. Nomex gloves should also be considered for maximum fire protection. If your unit mandates wearing these gloves then they should be standard uniform for all firearms training also. Finally, you should use the same considerations to make sure officers wear the proper protective footwear to withstand fire.

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