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Cover Story

TWO if by Sea: Tactical Waterborne Units

Waterborne tactical training prepares SWAT teams for operations on the deep blue.

August 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

Police waterborne training includes swimmer casts from high-speed boats. Tactical officers say observers from the shore are much more likely to notice a stationary boat than one that rips by and leaves swimmers in the water. This gives a surveillance or assault team the element of surprise.

Several months ago a tabletop exercise was held in Baltimore. Participating were command officers from the Baltimore Police Department, the Baltimore PD SWAT Team, the Maryland State Police, and the Maryland Port Authority. Watching from the gallery were officers from a number of other agencies.

The scenario being gamed went something like this: In international waters, terrorists intercept a container ship loaded with volatile chemicals. The terrorists kill the crew, wire the vessel with explosives, and resume the voyage into Baltimore harbor. Per standard operating procedure, as the ship enters the mouth of the harbor, a Maryland state pilot boards to bring it into dock. The pilot is sharp, he notices that things are not quite right and alerts the authorities. That leaves the players with the objective of the game. They must stop the hijacked ship from entering Baltimore's inner harbor where the terrorists can detonate their deadly cargo under the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

If the exercise had been a movie, it would have been easy. The dashing young heroes of a secret military unit, special FBI section, black ops counter-terrorist squad, or tactical police team would swing to the rescue and the terrorist plot would be foiled. But the tabletop exercise wasn't a movie; the players couldn't devise a fictional unit of invulnerable heroes to handle the problem. And since it was designed to play out in real time, the game was relentless; with each passing minute, the 300-foot cargo vessel/bomb sliced through the water on its way to the inner harbor.

The players realized that they were not equipped or trained for maritime tactical operations, so they wisely sought out some help from the experts. At their request, a Navy representative called down to Virginia Beach to request a SEAL team. He was told that "all assets were otherwise deployed." Another call went out to the 200-agent strong FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). It was in Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics.

There were no more calls to make. And the ship/bomb moved on toward the bridge.

Then an officer involved in the scenario remembered that one of the observers, Lt. Tim Cameron of the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Department, was the commander of a SWAT team that had trained for waterborne operations. Cameron was asked to join the exercise. Unfortunately, he had no magic solution to the problem. Even if his team had been standing by and ready to go, it would have taken them at least an hour to fly to Baltimore and prepare to board the hijacked container ship.

The lesson of the Baltimore exercise is quite clear: In 2002 police agencies can't just arbitrarily decide that their jurisdictions end at the water's edge and assume that anything on the water will be handled by the Coast Guard, the Navy, or somebody else.

According to Steven C. Bronson, founder and owner of Virginia Beach-based Tactical Watreborne Operations, they never could. For more than three years now, the retired Navy chief has been telling and showing police agencies that there's a serious hole in their training. Some have listened. Many have not. But after 9-11 they're considerably more receptive to the idea.

Fast Attack

"More than 70 percent of the American economy comes through ports," Bronson says. "So the water environment is definitely an area in which police need a considerable amount of training. Our law enforcement officers and especially our SWAT officers now have to have capabilities that they didn't possess a few years ago."

The idea to combine his Navy experience and his long-time interest in law enforcement into a waterborne training program for SWAT officers came to Bronson when he was watching TV coverage of the Andrew Cunanan incident. Cunanan, who was suspected of killing fashion tycoon Gianni Versace as part of a nationwide murder spree, was holed up in a houseboat in Miami when Miami/Dade Police took action live on the cable news. "I sat there and watched as the SWAT team made an approach down a finger pier, and I started looking at their movements from a safety perspective," recalls Bronson. "I realized that, for example, if the number three man in the stack had tripped over a cleat and fallen into the water, the team would have had a big problem."

Even in the post-9/11 world, one of the primary concerns of police teams that participate in waterborne training is how to execute a hostage rescue or end an active-shooter incident on a moving vessel. Tactical Watreborne Operations trains officers to effect both swimmer and boat assaults on real vessels.

Bronson explains that all of the weight the tactical officer carries on an operation is going to present great challenges if he takes an unexpected dip in a pool, lake, river, or bay. "So then you have an individual possibly drowning and the rest of the team faced with the decision do we help our teammate or make the assault." Such indecision could be deadly for the entire team. "If it was an armed, barricaded suspect, then you would have guys standing around in the open being shot at."

Drawing on his years of Navy experience manning fast attack craft and later designing and teaching fast attack craft courses, Bronson developed a waterborne tactical and survival course for police officers. And he set out to market the idea to police forces.

At first the concept was met with great skepticism. So Bronson arranged a demonstration of the waterborne capabilities a landlubber SWAT team could acquire in just a few hours of intensive training in his program.

That demonstration in the summer of '98 is still remembered vividly by the SWAT commanders who were in attendance. Bronson invited officers from 14 jurisdictions in three states to join him on the Annabelle Lee, a 300-foot sternwheeler excursion ship that plies the James River in Richmond. A training scenario was established: One of the couples on board for the dinner cruise had gotten into a fight, and the man had produced a pistol and was threatening to kill his girlfriend.

Normally, the police would have had to wait until the vessel docked to handle the situation, but not that day. With a deck full of cops watching, Bronson's team managed to board the moving vessel without being seen, move quickly into position, and subdue the gunman. "We made the takedown and had him removed before the SWAT cops who were watching were even aware that we were there," says Bronson. Officers who were aboard the Annabelle Lee during the exercise confirm that that's exactly what happened.

Bronson had sold the toughest of audiences on the value of waterborne training for SWAT officers. And one officer, Sgt. Mike Cameron of the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Department, invited him to come conduct a training program.

The Three Cs

The three-day course that Bronson's Tactical Watreborne Operations (TWO) offers to SWAT officers has one overriding mission, to give the students "comfort, confidence, and competence" in a marine environment. A good example of the content of the program is the recent class that TWO offered before TREXPO West in Long Beach, Calif.

Comfort is the first leg of the program, and TWO builds comfort in the water by starting in a pool. Training in the pool includes survival swimming, rescue techniques, and exercises designed to prevent panic in potentially deadly circumstances. For example, students are strapped into a 40-pound weight belt, then, wearing blacked out goggles, they are shoved into the deep end of the pool. The object of the lesson is to sink to the bottom of the pool, calmly extract yourself from the weight belt, and retrieve a piece of equipment, all in total darkness.

Although the pool training is one of the least "sexy" aspects of the TWO program, it may be the most important because it teaches tactical officers how not to drown when suddenly dumped into the water with all of their gear. "In order to work around the water, you have to be comfortable around, in, and under the water," says Bronson.

Progressing from the pool, the program moves to piers and then to open water. On the open water, students learn how to cast themselves out of boats at low and high speed, stealthily swim to and assault objectives, and move from one speeding boat onto another.

Bronson realizes that the last maneuver requires a lot of preparation both mentally and physically for land-based SWAT officers. That's why he starts this part of the course by simply teaching students ways to stealthily and steadily move from a slow boat to a pier, then from two stationary boats, from a slow moving boat onto another slow moving boat, and finally from two fast boats. "You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you jog, and jog before you run," says Bronson, explaining his step-by-step training process.

Heavily armed SWAT officers jumping from one speeding boat to another certainly has a cool factor that's not often seen outside action movies. But officers trained by TWO are much more likely to use more mundane skills that they gained from the program.

Bronson says the main question he faces today from police administrators is, "Why do we need this?" It's a question best answered by veterans of the program.

The goal of waterborne training is to make SWAT officers more comfortable and confident, in, around, and under water. Here an officer learns how to use a rebreathing device for stealthy submerged approaches.

Saving Lives

The Port Arthur (Texas) Police Department's SWAT team took the TWO course in July 2000. Team commander Lt. John Leger explains that Port Arthur, like many American cities, is almost surrounded by water. The city is on Sabine Lake, Sabine River, and the Neches River. Looking out on all that water, Leger came to the conclusion about four years ago that his 15-officer tactical team needed waterborne capability.

Leger's first move was to contact the Coast Guard unit at the Port Arthur station and inquire about joint training. The Coast Guard was accommodating, but Leger soon realized that his agency's job and the Coast Guard's job could not be reconciled. "Their training and their mission is a lot different than ours," he explains.

The Coast Guard experiment a bust, Leger looked for another source of waterborne training and that's when he found Bronson. It's fortunate for several of Port Arthur's citizens that he did.

Earlier this year, a group of five young men decided to go fishing in Sabine Lake. Not content with casting their lines from local docks or from the side of the lake, they chose to walk out on a pipe to the center of the lake. Then one of them fell in. Three of the others chose to jump in and help their friend. Unfortunately, none of the men could swim.

By the time police were called to the scene, one of the men had drowned. The others were desperately clinging to pilings or otherwise trying to remain afloat. On the banks of the lake, Leger and Officer Gary Cooper from the Port Arthur SWAT team stripped and dove into the water. They swam out into the middle of the lake and were able to rescue two of the drowning men.

According to Leger, the rescue would not have happened without the training that he and Cooper received from TWO. "The first day of the class is all about survival swimming and how not to panic in the water," he says. "I'm a good swimmer, but I didn't know a lot of these techniques, like the resting strokes."

Leger believes TWO training was even more critical to his partner in the rescue. He says TWO training helped Cooper to become more comfortable in the water. "Cooper told me afterward, 'If it hadn't been for us going to that class, you'd have been on your own,'" Leger says with a laugh.

Black Water

The Tennessee River cuts right through the city of Chattanooga, and many homes and businesses abut the water. That's why Lt. Mike Williams, commander of the Chattanooga Police Department's SWAT team, invited TWO to hold a training session in his landlocked city.

A week after completion of the class, Officer Daniel Anderson was called to the scene of a disaster at the downtown YMCA. The ceiling had collapsed above the Y's swimming pool, and heavy plaster, conduits, and girders had plummeted into the water. To make matters worse, because all the lights came crashing down with the ceiling, the room was cast into total darkness. After interviewing the Y staff, Anderson learned that they didn't know if everyone had gotten out of the pool.

Anderson took action. He went into the dark room, dove into the debris-filled pool with a waterproof flashlight, and scoured the bottom for trapped swimmers. Fortunately, no one was pinned under the wreckage, but that does not diminish Anderson's courage. Nor does it discount how much his TWO training gave him the skills and confidence to operate in dark debris-filled water.

Of course, swimming pool rescue operations were not the reason that Williams brought TWO to Chattanooga. "My primary concern was the Southern Belle. It's a riverboat that offers dinner cruises, and it often has as many as 300 people on board. I knew if we had a hostage situation on board that we couldn't get to it and even if we did, we didn't know how to tactically board a boat. Now we do."

Evidence Gathering

St. Mary's County, Md., is a peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake Bay and borders the Potomac River to the southwest and the Patuxent River to the east. With all that water in his jurisdiction, the St. Mary's County Sheriff was very receptive to waterborne training for his SWAT team, and it has paid unexpected dividends.

One of the benefits of waterborne training that is emphasized by the TWO program is that it gives the good guys another approach to waterfront houses and businesses. Bronson teaches his students how to stealthily swim into position and set up surveillance posts and even sniper positions in the water.

Before the TREXPO West conference and trade show in March, Tactical Watreborne Operations (TWO) held a three-day course for Southern California SWAT officers in Long Beach harbor.

Recently, the team was asked to assist the department's narcotics unit with surveillance of several waterfront properties. Totally unnoticed by their subjects, two waterborne-trained officers deployed from a boat about a half mile away from the houses. Dressed in wetsuits under their BDUs and carrying waterproof bags filled with weapons, radios, and surveillance equipment, the officers swam into position just off shore where they observed and photographed subjects tending marijuana fields. Charges were filed based on the evidence provided by the waterborne officers. The cases are pending.

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