How To…Communicate During a Pursuit

Let's be honest, radio procedure during emergency traffic tends to leave a lot to be desired.

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Back in 2014, USA TODAY did an analysis of federal crash data involving police pursuits between 1979 and 2013. The data showed at least 11,506 people, including 6,300 fleeing suspects, were killed in police chases; that was an average of 329 a year ‚ÄĒ nearly one person a day. The reporters also found that more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers had been killed and tens of thousands more were injured. Most bystanders were killed in their own cars, by a fleeing driver.

The immediate takeaway from this analysis is police pursuits are serious business and should be treated with reverence. Though there are many aspects of a pursuit that need dissecting, the one that consistently falls short is communication. Let's be honest, radio procedure during emergency traffic tends to leave a lot to be desired.

Radio Discipline

Pursuits tend to start the same way. The suspect fails to obey a lawful command and flees the scene in order to escape the situation. Typically, the initial radio traffic with dispatch goes very well. All it takes is a quick transmission stating they're not stopping or they just sped off to get the ball rolling. Once that's done, however, it seems that everyone else in the world wants to make their presence known.

Backup officers attempt to respond between those who are working, those working off-duty jobs that are close by, and sometimes even those who are off-duty but in the area. That's just the first wave.

The second wave consists of supervisors. These include first and second line supervisors along with the occasional command staff officer. None of them are doing anything malicious but if not careful, end up impeding the flow of communication.

The truth is, everyone not directly involved in the pursuit (actual or by policy) needs to stay off the primary channel.

The key to effective communication during a pursuit is having radio discipline. The only three people that need to be talking on the primary channel (where the pursuit is unfolding) are the officer involved in the pursuit, the pursuit supervisor, and dispatch. If you don't limit your radio traffic to those three, critical information will be delayed as officers step all over each other on the radio.

If everyone trying to talk on the radio is not bad enough, there are also sometimes officers who aren't paying attention to their radios. It's easy to tell when that happens because they come on the channel to advise something trivial that has nothing to do with the pursuit, like telling the world they are checking out for lunch.

Dispatch then must correct them by saying there is emergency traffic on the radio. This creates a string of unnecessary radio traffic. Instead of taking up valuable air time, the responding units, other supervisors, or command staff alike, need to do a lot of listening so they know where to go and cover what needs to be done.

Ideally, once emergency traffic is called for, only those that are involved in the pursuit stay on the primary channel. The others move to a preselected administrative channel. Everyone else can now blow up the administrative channel without fear of interfering with the pursuit.

Officer Responsibilities

If you initiated the pursuit, your communications responsibilities are quite simple; call it out as you go and keep people informed. All traffic stops starts with TLC (tag, location, and color of vehicle). You should also try to include the number of occupants. This basic information is very important to responding units. If the stop goes south, at least your backup has a place to start looking.

In addition to officer safety issues, supervisors want answers to policy questions. For them to decide if they will let the pursuit go on, they need to know what crimes are involved (reason for pursuit), your speed, and the suspect's driving pattern. Since you know these policy-type questions are coming, try to answer them before they ask you. That way you stay in control of the radio and focused on what you need to be doing.

Supervisor Responsibilities

As the pursuit supervisor, you have three considerations: officer safety, citizen safety, and following policy and procedure. Your air time will be spent asking questions or giving instructions in one of those three areas.

If you must get on the radio, try to speak right after your officer gives out an update. That way you can be sure they are done with their transmission and your chances of interrupting are minimal. Make use of the administrative channel as well. The last thing you want to do is flood the pursuit channel with unnecessary traffic. There is a healthy balance of radio talk that can be achieved if everyone works together.

For example, I have been involved in situations where I couldn't get on the radio as pursuit supervisor because some command staff person, not anywhere near the scene, started playing 50 questions. I have had to politely cut them off to keep the radio channel open. In other instances, I had to go so far as to remind them I was the pursuit commander and that unless they wanted to take over (the responsibility), to stay off my channel. Obviously, that is said in as a polite manner as possible. It's amazing how well that works.

I have found that commanders who like to hear themselves speak are heavy on flexing their muscle but shy on accepting responsibility. However, I recommend you use that tactic as a last resort because you will be called upon to defend your actions later. If you're right, the tape of radio traffic will speak for you.

Backup Officer Responsibilities

Training becomes an important factor, as responding units should know what to do without being asked. Policy will tell you how many officers can join the pursuit. The last thing anyone ever wants to see is another O.J. Simpson pursuit where he had over a dozen police cars behind him, from several agencies. If you are not involved directly with the pursuit, then you are involved in making it safer by doing things like blocking intersections.

Radio traffic for backup officers who are directly involved is easy; there is none, unless policy tells you to do something specific or the officer conducting the pursuit tells you to do something. If you are not directly involved, you are taking instructions from a senior officer or another supervisor on the administrative channel.

Training is Key

My experience shows that radio discipline is very hard to keep, especially during pursuits. There are two things you need to overcome communication problems during a pursuit: training and strong supervision. How you train is how you perform so if you never train on radio discipline, how can you be surprised when there is none?

There is an ebb and flow to a pursuit. Supervisors need to learn to have patience and practice their own form of radio discipline. If the officer involved is not giving out needed information, then you have no choice but to get on the radio.

Officers do things or keep from doing things based on what their supervisors allow. If you want good communications during a pursuit, then you must demand it. Nothing happens in a vacuum. If you don't take control of the radio during emergency traffic, someone else will. 

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a master's of political science degree from the University of Central Florida.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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