When asked what duty they would prefer, the overwhelming majority of cops indicate SWAT. The reason is quite simple: tactical teams are cool. They appeal to the "I want to be an Airborne Ranger, I want to live a life of danger" inclination found in many young men and women. SWAT is to many officers both glamorous and exciting.
But SWAT officers are also the most likely of all police officers to end up disabled or dead from a training accident. All those cool things that SWAT officers do: rappelling from helicopters, blowing doors off their hinges with explosive charges, carrying submachine guns, are potentially dangerous.
The danger is, of course, part of the appeal of being a SWAT officer. But it's also why SWAT training must be approached with the greatest level of precision and precaution.
Larry Glick, director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), says SWAT training has to be an edgy experience with an element of danger for it to be effective. "If you think about the missions that SWAT officers face, it's no surprise that preparing for those missions is dangerous," he says.
Bob Bragg, director of instructor training at the Washington State Criminal Justice Academy, adds that SWAT training is such high-speed, on-the-edge stuff that it bears little resemblance to everyday police training. "Riding a motorcycle down the street is fairly safe, but when you start jumping over things, then you've got a much greater chance of injury," he says.
So much greater is the chance of injury in SWAT training that in the last five years tactical officers have died in training accidents involving falls, explosions of improvised equipment, failures of equipment pushed beyond its limits, and the unintended introduction of live ammunition into training scenarios.
The mounting toll of these tragedies has led to questions about some SWAT training practices and the development of a number of safety initiatives by tactical officers. "You're always going to have training accidents," says Lt. Robert Chabali, an NTOA board member and former SWAT officer with the Dayton (Ohio) Police Department. "However, you can significantly reduce the quantity of training accidents and the intensity of the injuries by placing the proper protocol and procedures in a training environment."
Chabali says NTOA has identified four distinct causes of most recent SWAT training tragedies. These include: not having a safety briefing before the exercise began, a lack of proper safety equipment, failure to conduct proper searches of participants for live ammunition, and forgetting to notify adjoining municipalities of the scope and time of the training.
Of course, even if a SWAT team takes all of these precautions they're going to be in harm's way during a training exercise. And that's why medical support is a valuable asset for any SWAT team.
The Palm Springs (Calif.) Police Department's SWAT team is one of the most blessed in the nation when it comes to medical personnel. Palm Springs SWAT has not one, but two, emergency room physicians on its roster. Dr. Lawrence Heiskell and Dr. David Tang are both level 2 reserve officers on the Palm Springs PD and one or both of them is usually with the team on callouts or training exercises carrying both a gun and a medical kit.
Heiskell says he's logged time in training exercises that included live fire, high-risk vehicle stops, high-risk warrant service, breaching, hostage rescue, and rappelling out of Blackhawk helicopters provided by the U.S. Customs Service. He's seen a lot of injuries and noted a lot of hazards, and he believes the inclusion of qualified medical personnel can be a major factor in reducing risks associated with tactical police training. "You can minimize the hazards [of SWAT training] by having astute, trained medical personnel on your team who can perform a medical threat assessment," he explains.
A medical threat assessment (MTA) of a SWAT exercise can only be performed by a doctor or paramedic who has first-hand knowledge of SWAT practices. As Heiskell explains it, the MTA is sort of a medical handicapping of the exercise that takes into account the possible hazards and requires the medical professional to prepare a reaction to possible injuries from those hazards in advance of the training session.
"Let's say my SWAT team commander comes to me in July and tells me we're going to be practicing in a hotel that's about to be torn down," Heiskell explains. "OK, so I know two things immediately: we're going to be doing explosive entries and we're going to be wearing full body armor and helmets in 110-degree heat. My primary concerns are dehydration, hyperthermia, and blast injuries. So I make sure we have plenty of fluids, including electrolyte replacement (sports drink), that everybody is wearing eye and ear protection, and that I'm ready to treat lacerations from broken glass."
Despite such precautions, tragic SWAT accidents can still occur, sometimes even to the medical personnel attached to the team. Two years ago, Michael Yahraus, a paramedic assigned to the Sarasota Police Department's SWAT team, was killed when the plug in a blank gun blew out of the barrel with the force of a bullet.
The tragedy of Michael Yahraus is indicative of how hazardous SWAT training can be. A fire department paramedic, Yahraus had just joined the team with the role of keeping the other officers safe and tending to their injuries and the injuries of civilians on callouts. He was killed in a training accident.
Officers of the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department say the last person they ever expected to be killed in a training accident was Sgt. Tom Hontz. He was known for being the most safety-conscious officer on the force. But last February, Hontz was killed in a freak explosion during a joint training session of the Scottsdale and Gilbert (Ariz.) SWAT teams.
The explosion, which also wounded 14 others at the scene, occurred when officers used a smoke grenade to simulate tear gas in the demonstration of a "gas axe."
More of a pick than an axe, the gas axe is a means of delivering tear gas through the walls of a building. The pipe head of the axe is used to punch a hole in the wall and a gas canister at the rear of the axe head in a sealed chamber is triggered and pumps gas through the pipe and into the wall. When the gas canister was triggered in the Arizona gas axe, which actually belonged to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, something went terribly wrong.
A Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms investigation into the incident concluded that the smoke canister used in the gas axe was a poor choice for the application. It was far too "energetic" to be confined in a chamber and it vented in the opposite direction from the axe's gas pipe.
The tragedy has changed the Scottsdale PD's equipment testing guidelines. Now, before the tactical team can test any equipment that is not commercially manufactured, it must have approval from the command staff.
National Tactical Officer Association director Larry Glick says gas axes are not inherently dangerous, but officers should be cautious with any improvised equipment. "Necessity is the mother of invention and a lot of specialized tools are custom built [and should be handled with care]. But the gas axe is an important tool because it inserts gas through a wall without putting an officer in jeopardy," he explains.