Off-duty safety: 5 tips to protect yourself and your family

Your first mission is to ensure you are always aware of your surroundings – even when you are at your own house


Since 1999, PoliceOne columnist Richard Fairburn has been tracking ambush attacks on police officers. He offers a wealth of information in his column and in this insightful video.

Dick says you must train to counterattack with overwhelming force and in this article, writes that administrations that prohibit officers from firing at or from a vehicle prevent the deployment of possible life-saving solutions.

In the video, Dick shares several clips showing how officers can either use their car as a weapon or can shoot through their windshield to stop a threat. He says that in a worst-case scenario, you don’t want to be a sitting duck while you are trying to release your seatbelt and get out of the car. If you can lower the window, that’s great; if not, a couple of shots will punch through, letting you target the baddie.

Take your family to the local range for some training. (Photo/Pixabay)
Take your family to the local range for some training. (Photo/Pixabay)

Dick also talks about how a downed officer can be used as bait to target backup responders and why situational awareness is especially important when you are responding to this type of event.

Remember “Full Metal Jacket”? Yeah, you might roll up into a setup with a wannabe sniper behind a high-powered rifle. How many of your sergeants and other leadership know how to lead a combat team into this type of situation? The National Tactical Officers Association offers dozens of courses to help grow your skills and will bring the instructors to you if you have the resources to host them.

I don’t want to steal Dick’s thunder. You should read his column and ask your leadership to invest in his video. What I do want to talk about is how to extend his excellent advice to protect yourself and your family when you are off duty. Here are five strategies you can employ to ensure everyone’s safety.

1. Does your family have one or more code phrases?

In Season 4, episode 3 of “Blue Bloods,” we learn the entire Reagan clan has a code phrase that means “hit the deck,” and everyone from the oldest to the youngest knows what to do.

Have you and your family trained for the day when you are overtly attacked or ambushed? How often do you practice the drill?

In this column, I talked about a correctional officer friend of mine who was with his family when a previous “guest of the county” came running toward him across a mall parking lot. Luckily, he and his family were prepared and everyone survived the incident. Make sure your family will too.

Dick adds that if you have decided not to get involved in an incident and will be leading your flock to safety (possibly with gun in hand), use another code phrase like, “Follow me.” Everyone in the group must react instantly without discussion or argument. Small children should be in physical contact with an older guide and, in low-visibility situations, they may all stay linked hand-in-hand to your belt.

If you issue the code phrase that means you are going to get involved, does your family move away and leave you behind without question or hesitation? I talk about this in more detail in a following section.

2. Do you keep your Spidey sense turned on?

Have you talked with your family about how they can hone their Spidey senses? One of my favorite books is “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence.” Through dozens of stories taken from his career and life, author Gavin de Becker shows how imminent violence is preceded by clear warning signs. Like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman says, you should never be in any condition below yellow – even when you are at home mowing the lawn. This is important, especially if you bring your squad car home.

When you are at a sports venue or watching your kids at the playground or on the field, is your head on a swivel? Until we saw congressmen under attack during a morning baseball practice in Virginia, who would have thought that could happen? Do you mentally catalog your escape routes and where you can find concealment or cover if the need arises?

By now you should know that if you come home or back to a hotel room and the door is open, you move directly to condition red. Does your family know what to do if they see an unexpected open door that could lead to an ambush?

3. Are you watching your six?

I was at the San Francisco cruise ship pier a few months back and saw an officer leaning his shoulder against this wall with his nose in his smartphone and his back to the plaza. What's wrong with this picture?

If you need to check your smartphone, at least make sure your six is covered. In this case, the officer could have leaned back against the wall facing toward the plaza.

It follows that if you are seated you should be against a wall facing the room in the “gunfighter’s seat.” Read up on the dead man’s hand and where Wild Bill was sitting for some background on why this is a good idea. If you’re out with a group of officers, maybe you should put the best shooters against the wall.

Keep an eye out for escape routes if you need them. My mom thinks I’m crazy because I check out the exits when I first enter a building, and my head is always on a swivel.

4. Do you have the means to protect yourself off duty?

Whether you carry today or will make a promise to start carrying tomorrow, check out Doug Wyllie’s column discussing four key considerations for off-duty carry.

If family members don’t carry and for whatever reason you cannot use your off-duty firearm, do they know how to take it from you, get off the x, and use it?

If things go from bad to worse and you have to engage, does your family know to move to safety immediately then call 911 and calmly but quickly state you are LEO then describe your appearance, your location and your firearm? Do they know not to say, “My husband just shot someone, please come quickly?”

Identification as a LEO plus a good description can help to avoid a blue-on-blue incident when the cavalry arrives.

5. Do you carry a pocket-size trauma kit when you are off duty?

I carry a Combat Application Tourniquet (CAT) on my belt. If anyone asks, it’s a cellphone charger.

Even if you don’t want to carry a trauma kit, get some training in combat care. Remember the saying, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me?”

It’s only a matter of time before the terrorists bring their game to U.S. cities and I want to be ready to care for myself and to offer care if I can.

Wrapping up

There’s a lot of information in this column. Where can you start? As I said in the opening paragraph, your first mission is to ensure you are always aware of your surroundings – even when you are at your own house.

While they don’t need your level of training, impress upon your family that it is their duty to understand how to protect themselves as relatives of a LEO. Make it a game for younger kids. It doesn't hurt to have code phrases that mean “move away from me and call 911” or “hit the deck.” Keep it simple. Too many code phrases can be confusing, especially to younger family members.

See if your CO will host a family day at the range. Even if he or she won’t, you can take your family to the local range for some training. If you train at home, remember to double- and triple-check your firearm is unloaded. I do “get off the X” and “shoot and move” training at home using this system, but anyone can practice on the cheap with dry fire and a paper target.

If your agency cannot or will not let you practice shooting from a vehicle, find a dark area where you can practice on your own. Just remember to double- and triple-check your firearm is unloaded so that you don’t have to explain a shattered windshield to your significant other – or your sergeant.

Watch your six and stay safe.

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