One of my favorite books is The Survivor’s Club by Ben Sherwood. The subtitle says it all: “The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life.” Survival is (among other things) part skill, part preparation, part mindset, part science, and a whole lot of luck. In law enforcement we study survival — voraciously devouring everything we can about how and why police officers get hurt or killed and how we can prevent tragedy from occurring.
The mid-year report on officer deaths released earlier this week by the NLEOMF indicated that on duty deaths has risen 20 percent in 2009. Up slightly from 20 at the same time last year, 22 officers were killed by gunfire; 35 died in vehicle-related incidents, an increase of 17 percent during the same period in 2008. Nearly 60,000 police officers will be assaulted this year, and more than 16,000 will be injured. The good news is that many of these attacks and injuries can be prevented. Those that cannot be prevented can be handled — provided you have a combination of survival factors such as mental preparation, medical intervention, faith, fear, resilience, determination, and yes, luck.
Prevention and Preparation
Cops tend to be intolerant of our citizens who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions and yet we often fail to take personal responsibility for our own survival. “The department won’t send me to training” or “The agency doesn’t provide more than the basics in the range or on the mats” are two common laments I hear from my fellow crime fighters as I travel around the country.
Sorry guys and gals, but that’s nothing but whiny bull-crap. Good officer survival training is mostly pure prevention. As we talk about in the Street Survival Seminar, our purpose is to inoculate the students by giving them a little shot of the disease. In this case, the “disease” is complacency, lack of awareness, routine, bad tactics, and a failure to continually train to win. I meet so many great cops who have allowed themselves to be “de-trained” by routine and their spirit crushed by bureaucracy.
It’s no secret that training dollars are hard to come by, and yet, when I was teaching Street Survival in Sacramento, California a few months ago, I was stunned (and delighted!) to discover that more than 90 percent of the attendees had paid for the seminar out of their own pocket!
Find a buddy and get to the range on your own. If your agency won’t let you shoot outside of scheduled training times, join a public range. On your meal break, wolf down a protein bar and practice handcuffing with you beat partner in the roll call room instead of meeting him at the local burrito place. Work out, read relevant books and articles, take advantage of online training videos, take care of your equipment, work hard to maintain a positive outlook, and realize that no matter where you work, there are people who want to hurt and kill you just because you’re a cop.
The Survival Mindset
Talking about our “survival mindset” is a series of books, not a few lines in an article, but remember the first of Sherwood’s Three Rules of the Survivor’s Club: “Everyone is a survivor.” True survivors take control of misfortune; they live fully, they make the most of their time on Earth, in other words, they thrive. Police trainers often call this “the will to win.”
Chuck Remsburg’s excellent book, Blood Lessons, is full of these heroes, people that Sherwood calls “super livers.” Survivors tend to be flexible, they figure out what is normal, and when that changes, they adapt to a new normal and move on. Even for a cop, it’s not “normal” to be shot, but 95 percent of us who do get shot will live. Some will return to full duty, others won’t. But of those survivors, most will go on to live to live happy, productive lives. They will deal with critical incidents fully and completely. In other words, they figure out a new “normal” and they adapt because they are resilient. The survival mindset goes beyond returning fire, rendering self-aid, and getting to the hospital. As Dave Smith says in his “Winning Mind” presentation, “survival is getting home, winning is keeping the home!”
A Word About Blunt Trauma
You can be the most tactically-trained, most well-armed member of your agency, but as Captain Travis Yates will tell you, you can’t shoot or fight your way out of a vehicle crash. Lets just admit it, most of us drive too fast, we drive way too distracted, and many of us come up with excuse after ridiculous excuse not to wear our seat belts.
When it comes to trauma, Dr. Susan Brundage told Ben Sherwood that “knives are better than guns, guns are better than brick walls.” In other words, a stab wound can usually be stitched up, a bullet is more complicated but can often be successfully sewn shut, but when blunt trauma is involved, there is no single, potentially reparable. Thing. It’s a whole body full of hurt. Slow down, pay attention (in and out of the car, on traffic stops, while directing traffic, and on your motorcycle, your police bike, your ATV, personal watercraft, harbor boat, or whatever you drive), and wear your damn seatbelts!
Not Just Surviving
Sherwood defines a survivor as “anyone who faces and overcomes adversity, hardship, illness, or physical or emotional trauma.”
At a recent Street Survival Seminar, I was approached by a student who had recently been in a particularly horrific officer-involved shooting. The bad guy was dead, the cops were all recovered, but this officer was suffering mentally and had not yet returned to work. In fact, he was using the seminar, in which we show video after video of police officers involved in critical incidents — some of the officers win, some don’t — to help him decide whether or not to go back to full duty.
He seemed to have a great attitude; there was no self-pity in this young man. He had other employable skills, and as he told me, he just wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back and “deal with a__holes who were going to try to kill” him. I don’t call that PTSD; I call that using your life experience to make changes. He was not gong to be made helpless by this incident, he was going to take control, find another line of work, and move on. He had lost the fire in his belly to be a cop, but he seemed passionate about life, having nearly lost his in that shooting. His strategy would not work for some of us, but I have no doubt that it will work for him; he was a “survivor” in every sense of the word, and someone to be admired.
The bottom line in this: none of us knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, but we owe it to ourselves (and our friends, our family and our communities) to be aware, to be prepared, and to do everything we can to truly survive. We need to go beyond “awareness” and really study the science of survival. Isn’t your life — and lives of those you work with, train, and supervise — worth it?