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Street leadership: 5 Steps to Success

By Dick Fairburn, Critical Incident Training Coordinator, IL State Police

For the most part, the patrol side of law enforcement is an individual activity. We generally patrol in solo cars and arrive at calls one at a time. Yet, to be effective at critical incidents, coordinated teams of officers are necessary. Our brothers in the big red fire trucks always respond as pre-organized teams which is a definite advantage. Forming an effective team from five or six lone-wolf police responders, who each jump into the fray to do what they think most important, requires good leadership. Leadership, not management ... there’s a huge difference.

We have many so-called leadership schools in our profession, which are actually management training programs. Institutions like the FBI National Academy, Northwest Traffic Institute’s School of Staff & Command and the Southern Police Institute really focus on managing the day-to-day operations of a police agency. Little of their curriculum is geared toward teaching first-line supervisors how to lead their troops into a combat situation. And, when we think about an active shooter response or terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction, we are talking about combat. To my knowledge, no true leadership school exists for police supervisors. So, here’s an overview of what good field supervisors have learned on their own to turn a group of responding police officers into an effective coordinated team.

Take command
If you’re the corporal/sergeant/master sergeant/lieutenant who should be taking command at a critical incident, then ... take command! Even if you are just an officer and no one else is taking command, then . . . take command! The general rule is: The first arriving officer becomes the Incident Commander until formally relieved. But, if there is a vacuum of leadership, fill it. You may be relieved soon by a more senior arriving officer, but make sure someone is coordinating police activity during every minute of a life-threatening incident.

When you assume command, say so. Announce that you are assuming command over the radio to let arriving officers and dispatch know who is in charge. While you’re on the radio, clear your frequency for this emergency and move routine traffic to a secondary channel. Fire departments religiously announce command, but police officers, believing they’ll seem arrogant, often don’t say the words out loud. Get in the habit of verbally taking command.

In the first few minutes of an unfolding emergency, we don’t have time for a meeting. We also don’t have time for an indecisive, weak-voiced leader. We need a drill instructor to issue simple, direct orders in a manner that inspires confidence. Much like a sports team, your job is to be a coach, not a player. The hardest lesson officers have to learn when they become a field supervisor, is that they no longer belong on the field. When you take command, you need to take a few giant steps back from the excitement, see the big picture and direct the actions of your officers instead of trying to fix the problem yourself.

Keep your people safe

The first thing the leader must accomplish is a problem assessment to determine what his people are facing. Is this an active shooter event? What is that green gooey stuff running out of the overturned tank truck? How many people could be in that building that was just collapsed by a tornado? Most importantly, how does this threat endanger my people? You all know that these scenes are horribly panic ridden and confusing. At one point during the Columbine school attack, as many as eight shooters were thought to be active in the building.

As my old friend Sergeant Bob James, Illinois State Police SWAT trainer liked to say, “what we do is dangerous, but we must do it as safely as possible.” As you sort through the confusion to best determine the scope of the problem, you must also make a risk assessment. Ask yourself: Do my people have a chance to succeed in this situation? Can officers (armed only with pistols) deal with a barricaded gunman armed with a rifle? Do we have the right protective equipment to rescue a brother officer who is down from the fumes of a leaking haz/mat tanker? Officers have been critically injured and killed when they weren’t properly equipped for such events.

Identify the hot zone, which is ground zero of the danger posed by this incident, and communicate this zone to all of your people. In the panic of life-threatening incidents, we tend to rush blindly into situations without stopping to think about safety. Your job as a field commander is to stop those officers from throwing their lives away in a noble, yet futile effort. Allowing them to run headlong into the hot zone is the easy choice. The hardest decision you will ever make is to say no. Cutting your losses may be the right thing to do, but that decision will never be easy to make ... or live with.

Call in the cavalry

Don’t let your ego overload your butt. There is no shame in calling for help. Actually, in large urban areas the opposite may be the problem. When the “shots fired - officer down” call goes out, the response can be overwhelming. A few years ago two officers were shot in the far north suburb of Chicago by a suspect who then barricaded himself in a huge supermarket. One estimate put the number of arriving squad cars near 100, and none of them were assigned or formally requested. If you build it ... they will come. Don’t let those responders stumble into the hot zone or stand around idly. Put them to work.

At a major incident, you will need to set both inner and outer perimeters so a large number of uniformed officers will be needed. You will likely need specialty units like a SWAT team, HazMat team or Bomb Squad. Call them as soon as you suspect the need to minimize their response time. You can always send them back if their expertise isn’t necessary.

Control your environment

It’s up to you to control the battlefield. You probably can’t resolve the incident quickly, but you can level the playing field. Earlier, we mentioned perimeters. You need two. The inner perimeter contains the hot zone and keeps additional victims from getting into harm’s way. The outer perimeter is for controlling the flow of traffic and incoming resources. By clearing out the area between the inner and outer perimeters, we give ourselves a safe and secure area to work.

In our safe area between the perimeters, we need to establish a command post, which probably started out as your vehicle. If the event goes more than an hour, you should seek out a fixed site between the perimeters for a command post. You should also establish a staging area for incoming resources. It’s a good idea to put someone in charge of managing the staging area and make sure you request all resources to report to the staging area. Do not give requested resources the address of the incident scene or you may inadvertently respond them into the hot zone.

Build your command team

If you’re still in charge at this point, when a fixed command post is being established, you should be in the early stages of building a command team using the Incident Command System (ICS). Do you remember your mandatory National Incident Management System (NIMS) training? The ICS is a proven way to organize a large response and becomes especially important when multiple agencies and response disciplines work together. Ideally, a Unified Command structure should be used when several agencies share jurisdictional responsibility for an incident.

Shifting into a tactical management style is most often done by those who have learned the skills in the military or from working for a good tactical leader. Police supervisors who have had military leadership training can adapt those principles to law enforcement. Those lacking a military background must learn from good examples of street leadership. Some people are truly born leaders, but good leaders can also be trained. If a respected training organization were to create a topnotch police leadership school, I suspect it would become a busy place. In this post-9/11 environment, the need for effective police leaders becomes even more crucial.

A training note ...

The closest thing I’ve found to a police leadership school is the Initial Response class developed by Bowmac Educational Services, Inc., of Honeoye Falls, New York. This three-day program, officially titled Simulation-Based Training for Initial Response Personnel, teaches first responders to assume the role of Incident Commander and make decisions in a stressful role-playing environment that uses a large model city simulator.

The Initial Response class, which is on the Department of Homeland Security Preparedness Directorate, Office of Grants and Training’s approved list to receive federal terrorism funding, combines classroom lectures, video debriefings and role-playing exercises. The Office of Grants and Training was formerly known as the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP).

Several states run their own Initial Response training programs under license from BowMac. Illinois, for example, has trained more that 8,000 police officers and many firefighters and other responders, in BowMac’s Initial Response techniques In the class evaluations, many experienced officers have called this class the “best I’ve received in my entire career.”

The BowMac training emphasizes the need for the first responding supervisor to accomplish Seven Critical Tasks© to gain control of a critical incident. Only by controlling the panic and confusion inherent in such events can an effective response be mounted. In addition to the Initial Response class, BowMac and its licensees also offer a three-day Command Post class that combines all community entities into a Unified Command team using the same realistic simulation-based training techniques. In the Command Post class, which also has federal funding approval, the traditional response groups (like police, fire and emergency medical services) are teamed up with public works supervisors, elected officials, school authorities and non-governmental organizations to train as a truly community-wide management body.

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