Improving Officer Safety Through Preparation and Practice

Although the U.S. Incident Command System (ICS) has existed for four decades, analyses of real-world incidents and exercises show that many of the nation’s law enforcement agencies still struggle to establish and use an effective incident command process during particularly complex events, such as active-shooter situations.

Fire agencies initially developed and implemented the ICS concept to help manage multi-agency responses to wildfires. Because its common terminology and scalability helped responders from other organizations integrate into an effective incident management structure, many public safety agencies adopted the ICS model for their own purposes. Since being incorporated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) into the federal government’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 2004, ICS-related guidelines and training processes have become more readily available to a broad spectrum of other first-responder agencies and organizations.

Baltimore, Las Vegas & Oakland: Three Deadly Examples

Nonetheless, the consequences of not establishing and using an effective incident command system can be tragic. In December 2009, for example, an Independent Board of Inquiry cited the lack of command and control as a key factor contributing to the deaths of police officers during a 2009 incident in Oakland, California.

The incident began when two officers were shot during a vehicle stop. The Inquiry Board stated that the command officers responding failed to recognize the event as a complex incident and, largely for that reason, did not establish an incident command post. One operational result was that there was little or no control of other personnel responding to the incident. Moreover, the Board also said, no formal processes had been established for planning, communications, and/or sharing information. Nearly two hours after the initial shooting, two more officers lost their lives when they engaged the suspect at his apartment building.

In 2011, an Independent Review Board examining a police-involved shooting in Baltimore, Maryland, determined that the failure to establish an incident command post contributed to an officer’s death. When Baltimore police officers arrived at a local nightclub to assist with crowd control and dispersal, they encountered disorderly conduct and radioed for any units available to respond and assist. Although many officers did in fact respond, they were not formally tasked or managed because an incident command post was not established. The increasingly chaotic situation not only jeopardized officer safety in general but also directly resulted in the death of a plainclothes police officer.

More recently, a 2012 analysis of police-involved shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada, revealed a similar situation. The study found that tactical errors and fatalities are in general more prevalent in situations in which four or more officers respond to a scene. The police agencies specifically involved in such situations had policies in place related to incident command, and some training requirements as well, but the overall guidance the agencies provided had not been effectively integrated into the department’s daily operations and overall “culture.”

Practicing & Tailoring ICS for Law Enforcement Operations

When assessing any situation, regardless of scale, it is critical that law enforcement officials consider and implement the incident command policies needed to manage the response. Fortunately, the flexibility provided by the federal government’s ICS guidelines makes them adaptable to almost any situation imaginable. Even so, the December 2012 tragic shooting of grade-school students (and school staff members) in Newtown, Connecticut, and the February 2013 shooting spree by a former Los Angeles, California, police officer vividly illustrate that active-shooter situations can occur either suddenly without notice or be preceded by information that provides some warning.

Time is another ambiguous factor that must be taken into consideration. Certain incidents may last only a few minutes; others, though, might evolve into extended manhunts that span several days or even weeks. However, as the complexity of an event increases – for example, an attack involving multiple adversaries and weapons, similar to the four-day November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 164 people and injured more than 300 others – the ICS structure can quickly expand to include several area command posts reporting to an incident’s unified command center.

However, regardless of how experienced and well trained an individual officer may be in adapting ICS guidelines when responding to a dangerous incident, planning and preparation at the department level also helps considerably to ensure mission success. One nonviolent example occurred in Tampa, Florida, where the police department gained extensive experience in using ICS guidelines to help ensure public safety when the city was preparing for the 2009 Super Bowl.

Because of its conscientious preparations and frequent practice drills, the Tampa Police Department was later able to follow the same ICS-type guidelines immediately after a 2010 shooting of two police officers during a traffic stop. The massive manhunt that followed lasted 96 hours, involved more than 1,000 personnel from 22 law enforcement agencies, and ended with the capture of the suspect.

The ability to effectively use an incident command structure in a complex situation, however, requires advance planning, focused training, and repeated practice and assessment. The following examples are just a few of the more important steps various responder agencies can and should take to tailor the ICS concept for their own operations:

  • Develop agency-specific policies and procedures that outline the ICS structures needed to cope with both high-risk and common scenarios;
  • Integrate these same policies and procedures into current training drills and exercises – the use of scenario-based training for active-shooter situations, for example – rather than relying on general ICS course content;
  • Coordinate ICS planning, training, and exercises with partner agencies and organizations that are likely to participate in future response operations;
  • Use ICS for managing special events and other non-emergency incidents to gain additional experience and facilitate the use of ICS guidelines in normal police operations; and
  • Continually assess operations through exercises and analyses of real-world incidents – and follow up by updating, as and when needed, current policies, procedures, and training to address and rectify any problematic issues that become evident.

In short, through deliberate and focused planning and preparation, as well as continuous assessments and improvements, the nation’s law enforcement agencies can significantly maintain their readiness to implement the ICS policies and plans needed to achieve response objectives and maximize officer safety.

Monica Giovachino

Monica Giovachino is a managing director in the Safety and Security Division at CNA, where she has been employed since 1994. She has special expertise in the design and evaluation of complex exercises and in the evaluation of real-world events. She also has: (a) led the evaluations of a number of “TOPOFF” (Top Officials) Exercises and National-Level Exercises planned and carried out for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; (b) managed numerous other exercise programs for various local, state, and federal agencies; and (c) led the analyses of several complex real-world operations. Included in the latter category were evaluations of responses to hurricanes, disease outbreaks, chemical/biological “events,” and law enforcement incidents.



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