6 safety considerations for flash bangs
Rule #1: Avoid touching or getting close to explosives whenever possible
Designed to distract and divert suspect(s) attention during elevated risk police operations, Noise Flash Diversionary Devices (NFDDs) have been a mainstay with tactical teams since the early 1990s. Persons exposed to the bright light, loud report, and slight elevation of atmospheric pressure will, hopefully, “turn away from their original focus of attention.” In dynamic police circumstances, this can be lifesaving. Unfortunately, events transpiring in North Carolina and Texas during the past two weeks have reminded us once again that NFDDs can have traumatic — even life-threatening — effects as well.
Tactical policing has taken many positive steps in recent years, but as we advance the dialogue in some areas — such as rethinking our focus on dynamic entry — we seem stuck in others. One such area is a failure to recognize and adequately address the potential dangers of noise flash diversionary devices. I have little information concerning the Texas incident, and only today reviewed an email from Chief Rodney Monroe of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which provided the preliminary results of their internal investigation into the tragic death of SWAT Officer Fred Thornton. The focus of this article will not be on the two most recent events — though I will reference the Charlotte-Mecklenburg case in response to the recently-released investigative information. The focus will instead be on the past tragedies in general, and the common threads that seem to bind them together.
I have provided NFDD instructor/training since 1991, and investigated and provided testimony in many of the flash bang injury cases that have occurred since then. I have attempted to take the primary information gathered in these cases and summarize it, in hopes of preventing such negative outcomes from occurring in the future.
NFDD Safety Considerations
As I wrote in 2005, the primary causative factor in the one previous death (Langford v. Gates, 43 Cal. 3d 21, 729 P.2d 822 (1987)) and numerous serious injuries has been intimate contact with the device — either by officers during handling or suspects following hand deployment. Here are six key safety issues:
1.) Know and Obey the Law — This begins with a recognition that NFDDs are destructive devices controlled by Federal law, and it is illegal and dangerous to treat them any other way. I continue to be amazed by teams that treat flash bangs like M4 magazines, hanging casually off raid vests in the trunks of their cars. ATF Rul. 2009-3 addresses the storage of explosive materials in official response vehicles, and was issued to create balance between reasonable access and safety. One can only imagine what is in store for those overseeing a program where a negative NFDD outcome (injury, theft, etc.) occurs, and it is later determined to have been preventable, had federal law simply been followed.
2.) Technical Understanding — The most important aspect of individual NFDD safety is a mastery of the M201A1 fuze, and ensuring that NFDD handlers have a clear understanding of the mechanical processes involved with igniting the device. One should not assume that this is adequately covered in basic NFDD training, and in the absence of this knowledge the operator is incapable of taking the necessary macro view (overall NFDD safety) towards preventing a micro process (accidental pin removal/spoon extension/primer ignition). This macro view involves far more than checking to see if the legs are bent on the pin, and includes such things as pouch design/tension and procurement, sling attachments in relation to the NFDD, placement of the device on gear to minimize trauma should an accidental ignition occur, and strict compliance with handling rules.
3.) Limiting Team Member Physical Exposure/Proximity — During the early days of my teams’ explosive entry program, I was sent to the Oklahoma Miner Training Institute for certification in commercial surface blasting. Lead instructor Mickey Bradley set the tone for explosives safety the first day with Rule #1: Avoid touching or getting close to explosives whenever possible.
The same rule applies to NFDDs today. Team leaders and commanders must take an objective pre-event look at who will be issued flash bangs, how and when they will be accessed and carried, and why. The default for many agencies has been, “SWAT team members are issued and carry flash bangs.” I respectfully disagree. As the team leader and then commander of my agencies full time tactical team — and one who has been involved in over 100 operational NFDD deployments — we only had one deployment that was spontaneous as compared to pre-planned. I'm not suggesting that no one carry flash bangs for spontaneous need, just that the default “everyone” carries flash bangs is illogical and exposes multiple officers to unnecessary risk.
4.) Mode/Method of Carry/Handling — It is incumbent on team leaders and commanders to ensure that NFDDs are carried and handled in a well thought out and appropriate manner, consistent with contemporary training and practice. This begins with an absolute mandate that the devices be carried in pouches with the pin legs bent safe as received from the factory, and the pull ring contained in the redundant safety (see #5 below). This process continues with specific team policy, guidance, and direction related to the timing in which prepping (straightening of one-partial straightening of the other) of the pin legs is approved, and then rotating from redundant safe and removed from the fuze head.
This policy, guidance, and direction must clearly state that the pin will not be removed from redundant safe and pulled unless it is contemporaneous to the actual deployment. This final step can be done in approximately one second, and when balancing the risks associated with an “early pull” and the time saved, the “pin in” wins every time.
Should the operator remove the pin at the appropriate time and then determine that deployment is unsafe or unnecessary, the appropriate response is to deploy the live device to a safe “coming out” location, which was identified during the pre-raid briefing in order to address this particular problem-should it occur. This is addressed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police National Policy Center in their Flash Bang training key #587. The key further states that attempts at re-pinning are dangerous and should not be attempted.
In the days following the Charlotte-Mecklenburg tragedy, an email was circulated that suggested the involved officer had, “removed the pin in advance of a high risk operation, the spoon was held in place with tape, and the device ignited when he was attempting to re-insert the pin.”
The threads that followed in response were universal disbelief. I regret that I was not in the “universal disbelief” camp. I had personal knowledge of two NFDD injury cases in which operators testified under oath that they had routinely removed pins from their NFDDs in advance of deployment, leaving the spoon to be held in place only by the tension of the pouch itself. Believe it. Things like this can happen (absent rock solid training, policy, procedure, and random equipment checks by team leaders/commanders to validate learning and compliance). The release by Chief Monroe provided the preliminary results of the investigation which are outlined in the sidebar item by PoliceOne Columnist Dan Marcou.
5.) Use the Safest Munitions Available — The M201A1 is a proven fuze, but like any machine sometimes things can break. This is especially true when it comes to the legs of a pull pin that might get straightened, bent, then straightened again. In 1999, Combined Tactical Systems began offering their NFDDs standard with a redundant safety, which requires a conscious rotation of the pin ring before it could be pulled and removed.
This mechanical lock effectively prevents the pin from getting snagged on gear and accidentally being pulled, which has been a factor in several of the unintentional ignitions observed. Other manufactures offer this additional safety as an option, and regardless of the brand you chose any argument that you can't afford the cost or the extra safety contributes to a loss of operational speed should fall on deaf ears-no pun intended.
6.) Use Bang Sticks — The single most likely way to reduce the probably of operational contact injury to officers and citizens alike is to deploy the NFDD on a bang stick. This not only ensures the device is out of the officers hand when the pin is pulled, it ensures it is placed high in the room and away from people and combustible material — like couches — inside. Add to that the fact that a flash bang can almost always be placed away from the entry point, which further draws the suspect's attention from the team as they clear the door.
The NFDD continues to be a viable tool in tactical policing today, but those in control and command of SWAT teams today need to critically analyze their programs, recognize the risks involved, and take the necessary steps to ensure the officers and citizens they serve are as safe as they reasonably can be. We need to keep the families and friends of Fred Thorton and Richard DeLeon in our thoughts and prayers.