04/18/2011

Richard FairburnLaw Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

The role of the 'safety officer' in police work

It is essential that a safety officer have no other duties at the incident scene or training venue which could distract from their sole focus on safety

Those of us on ‘the thin blue line’ are sometimes reluctant to admit it, but we can actually learn some important things from our brothers and sisters who ride the big, red trucks. One of those things is the need to appoint a “safety officer” at significant incidents and high-risk training events.

If you are up-to-date on your mandatory NIMS/ICS training, you have been introduced to the concept of a safety officer. The duties of a safety officer at a critical incident scene are to look out for the safety and well being of the first responders, and only the first responders. The safety of the general public during a critical incident rests with the Operations and Planning elements. Fire commanders use a safety officer religiously and confer great powers upon them.

Have you ever tried to get a fire truck or paramedic unit to move their rig for some police-related reason? Damn, tough to get it moved, isn’t it? Locate the FD safety officer and convince him the rig needs to be relocated for safety reasons (on a blind curve, too close to a pending SWAT operation, etc.) and it will be moved, right now!

Some Precedent Exists
We have institutionalized the use of a safety officer at all Reality-Based Training (RBT) events. Whenever the training will involve real guns or dedicated Simunition weapons, we appoint one trainer as the safety officer, and it’s that person’s responsibility to outline the training venue perimeters, ensure all participants are thoroughly searched for live weapons/ammunition, and plan for all eventualities (including a medical response plan should an injury occur). The safety officer does not need to personally complete these tasks, but must ensure they are accomplished.

A safety officer must have the full authority of the Incident Commander or Training Commander to STOP any unsafe actions, on an emergency basis, until a further review is conducted by higher command. It is essential that a safety officer have no other duties at the incident scene or training venue which could distract from their sole focus on safety.

Appointing a safety officer may also be one way to address the staggering number of police killings we have witnessed in the last few months. I’m not sure who coined the phrase “cluster killings” to describe the trend of several officers being shot/killed in a single event, but I will credit them if I ever find out, because it perfectly describes how a large percentage of officers have been killed in recent months.

I’ve been studying the cluster killing phenomenon for several years, poring over a huge pile of incident details supplied by the FBI from their Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) data. No clear-cut pattern of incident-type emerges from that study, but the dramatic rise in cluster killings, ambush killings, and the use of center-fire rifles by felons is plainly evident. The other trend appears to be the emergence of a race of “über predators” who are waiting in ambush for the police to come to them or are even more boldly bringing the fight to us. We have seen these wolves actively hunting down sheepdogs in attacks like the Lakewood, Washington coffee shop attack and police station attacks in Michigan and Louisiana.

Boys and girls ... they are hunting you!

Case Study Example
Let’s look at one incident where a safety officer might have been important. NOTE! I am not criticizing this agency’s performance or suggesting a safety officer would have prevented an officer’s death, only that it could have possibly made a difference...

On January 1, 2011, Deputy Sheriff Suzanne Hopper of the Clark County Sheriff's Office in Ohio was killed while collecting evidence in a trailer park, related to a call of a window being shot out. Without warning, a man opened a trailer door and killed Deputy Hopper with one shot from a shotgun. Defending against an “unprovoked ambush” of this type is nearly impossible.

Like we all have done countless times, I’m sure all the on-scene officers were busy doing what they thought to be most important — assisting Deputy Hopper, canvassing the area, or merely looking on as Suzanne worked. Could a designated safety officer have made a difference here? Hypothetically, a safety officer would have considered only officer-safety issues related to the call. The call was for a gunshot — shooting out a window. Should we establish a loose perimeter and knock on all nearby doors to check for occupants before we deal with the footprint? At the very least, could we position one officer to focus their attention outward, while other officers are giving their full attention to the evidence?

How often have you been surprised by someone approaching while you and other officers were dealing with a traffic collision or domestic violence call? It has happened to all of us, because we are initially too short of manpower or we simply all focus our attention inward, on the primary problem at hand. Whenever possible, we should assign one or more officers to turn their backs to the primary problem and look for unexpected threats.

Protecting the Flock
If you’ve ever seen a flock of wild geese feeding in field, you will understand my meaning. While most of the geese have their heads down, focused on feeding, there are always several who are not feeding. They keep their heads fully up as sentries, scanning for any approaching predator. The senior police officer on a scene should designate one officer as the safety officer, to serve as the outward-looking sentry until more officers arrive to create a more secure perimeter.

Most agencies have “code words” they use, such as a phrase that will alert a dispatcher they are being held hostage at gun point. I suggest we adopt the policy of appointing a safety officer whose role is to turn their back to the event and stand “sentry duty,” alert to any nasty surprise that could be lurking out there. A code word to put them on outward alert could be “360,” meaning they need to be alert for all 360 degrees around the scene, or some other word or acronym used only for that assignment. The Sergeant would grab Officer Johnson by the arm and say “360” — or simply “safety officer” — to put him on alert. And, we should do this wherever officers gather; at incident scenes, coffee shop “meets,” and even off-duty events like police softball games.

The police profession must make safety officers a routine part of our operations, every bit as much as the fire service does. In order to protect the flock from the wolves, we sheepdogs first need to protect ourselves.

“The one who anticipates the action wins. The one who does not loses.” — Jeff Cooper

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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