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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

CS gas deployment devices can be extremely dangerous. A vented metal ammo can like this one is one of the safest ways to deploy CS gas and avoid causing a fire.

Your department should review all munitions to ensure that your own munitions don't become the problem. Some models of distraction devices are far more flammable than others. Many CS gas deployment devices - whether launched from a 37mm gun or thrown like a baseball - are burning-type devices and have a strong likelihood of causing a fire. One of the best methods of deploying CS gas quickly and effectively is to place the grenades in a metal ammo can that is vented. The cans can be thrown through two opposite corners of a residence and provide a rapid and thorough deployment of the gas, without causing a fire. A CS gas deployment device can also be introduced through ventilation systems, air conditioning or coolers. Demonstration and approval from your jurisdiction's risk manager and fire department can help reduce liability concerns. The ideal situation is to have a varied supply of "tools of the trade" and to know how to deploy them safely without starting a fire.

Any intelligence-gathering mission of a target location must include a determination of hazardous materials present. The most likely may be natural or propane gas used for heating. Everyone on the team needs to know the proper methods of shutting off the gas before it gets into the structure. Your local gas company can provide this training, as well as general information on the dangers of gas. Our training taught that the most explosive mixture of air and gas is actually at the level of about 14%. The proper tactical step if it is known that a suspect is trying to fill a structure with gas, is to vent it immediately. Venting a structure from a distance can be accomplished by using projectiles from a 37mm gun through the windows.

The biggest danger to a SWAT officer isn't fire, but smoke. Standard gas masks do not filter out smoke. Dense smoke will very quickly overcome a person and cause severe disorientation and breathing difficulty. SWAT officers should be trained by firefighters in movement techniques in a smoke environment. Officers will be taught how to drop to the floor where there may be breathable air and how to move along the walls in order to find an exit. Very few fire departments allow firefighters to enter a building to locate SWAT officers unless the tactical situation is under control. That means that, most likely, you are on your own. Consideration should include instruction and availability of self-contained breathing devices for SWAT officers. Companies are now making these devices especially for SWAT teams and marketing them for wear when doing warrants for meth labs. Teams should also consider having at least one officer wear a breathing device on any deployment so they can provide emergency rescue capability for their fellow team members.

Work Together

The Tucson Police Department formed a close working relationship with the Tucson Fire Department more than 10 years ago. The Fire Department allowed Fire Captain Patrick Bunker to provide specialized training for the SWAT Team. Captain Bunker introduced basic fire fighting training in how to properly use fire extinguishers to put out small fires. He provided a lecture on basic tips for dealing with fires. Captain Bunker also set up training in movement skills through a smoky environment. All SWAT officers are put into a smoke house and have to learn to maneuver through it. The exercise culminates in the rescue of mannequins in the smoke environment.

Within one month of the first training of this type, an entry team found itself inside a residence where they were trying to take an armed suspect into custody. The suspect fired upon the officers and set the residence on fire before retreating to a back bedroom. The entry team had to save itself and get out of the residence, which became fully engulfed. The officers credited their recent fire training with helping them maintain their calm and search for a way out. The suspect never gave up and burned to death in his own residence.

The Tucson PD's partnership with the Fire Department has only flourished. About 10 years ago they began a practice of having a supervisory fire official respond to every major callout situation. This official is able to monitor the situation and bring the appropriate fire equipment to the scene. They also send in their recovery vehicle, which is a haven for exhausted SWAT officers, who can be monitored and rehydrated by paramedics.

As your tactical teams continue to evolve, you need training for every eventuality. Learn from both the mistakes and innovations of others. Training to prevent the hazards of fire will instill even greater confidence in your officers.

Kevin Danaher is a Patrol Commander with the Tucson Police Department where he has served for 21 years. The graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is a former Army Major and SWAT Commander.

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