9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Coordinating Crisis Communications: SWAT & Tactical Dispatching

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2013
Written by Christine Massengale, training and quality assurance specialist at Hamilton County 9-1-1 Emergency Communications District in Chattanooga, Ten.  Contact her at burke_c@hc911.org

The number one duty of an emergency telecommunicator is to protect the public safety at any cost, and this responsibility is never more crucial than during periods of heightened response: active-shooter or hostage incidents, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, even planned events that occur on a large scale.  The heroic actions of police and firefighters grab headlines, and behind every one of them is a telecommunicator who makes sure that information gets to where it is needed most.

This article examines the roles and responsibilities of dispatchers for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or tactical incidents in both main center operations and field-deployment situations.  It also looks at the benefits and challenges of forming a specialized SWAT or tactical dispatch team based on agency size and the levels of response and training required by the field responders supported by the agency.

There are a number of training and response options, including mutual aid and regional response teams, for smaller agencies with low call frequency.  Any agency might someday face a high-risk, large-scale incident, and such an incident could overwhelm the agency's available resources if it is caught unprepared.

How do a telecommunicator's daily roles and responsibilities differ from the response needed to properly manage crisis incidents or even planned large-scale events such as parades or conventions?

In the broadest strokes, a telecommunicator's essential duty is to gather information in order to better prioritize, allocate and manage resources.  It is then the telecommunicator's responsibility to document that activity.  A dispatcher for SWAT or tactical forces performs those same tasks, only with greater nuance and in close coordination with the incident commander or SWAT team leader.

Some responsibilities, such as allocating and managing resources, may rest more heavily with the on-scene commander, while documenting and tracking resources may become a heightened priority for the dispatcher.  A tactical dispatcher deployed to the field has even greater responsibility, as he or she will often become an indispensable resource for the incident commander and a critical point of contact between the command post and the comm center.

SWAT teams provide a specially trained law enforcement response to incidents and events outside the normal scope of daily patrol operations.  Beyond the high-profile incidents such as barricaded gunmen, hostage situations, high-risk warrant service and riot control, SWAT also provides dignitary protection details, security planning and response to large-scale planned events, and specialized patrol functions such as directed patrol, crime suppression and even search and rescue.

The application, selection and training process for SWAT teams is rigorous, and typically requires additional training in first aid, explosives, K-9 handling, urban search and rescue, sharp shooting and other skills.  Depending on location and agency size, different skillsets are parsed out among different divisions or even entire agencies, meaning there are a variety of specialists, and no one person is expert in everything.

A dedicated SWAT team is an expensive luxury that requires vast resources.  Many agencies in rural and suburban areas are unable to justify the cost of compiling and maintaining such a team.  Often, smaller agencies rely solely on their patrol officers to respond to exceptional incidents.  Those patrol officers must prepare and train to ramp up response during times of crisis, even if it is a once-in-a-career situation.

Whether crisis incidents are handled by dedicated SWAT teams or trained patrol officers, they all have one thing in common: a telecommunicator is always involved.  Thus, it only makes sense to include communications in any specialized training and response planning.

What is the difference between SWAT dispatching and tactical dispatching?

On the surface, the difference seems obvious -- SWAT dispatch indicates assignment to handling a SWAT call, and tactical dispatch is all other heightened situations, right?  Yes and no.

No national standard exists to define a dispatcher or telecommunicator, and similarly there is no single definition for a SWAT or tactical dispatcher.  In the absence of a standard to define the training, selection process and credentials necessary, each agency is left to tailor its response to meet the specific needs of the area it serves.

Generally speaking, a SWAT dispatcher is specially trained to handle the needs of a SWAT-level law enforcement response, but a tactical dispatcher is trained to handle a variety of specialized responses to a variety of situations, including but not limited to SWAT calls.  These requests might be for high-profile or prolonged law enforcement cases, search and rescue, large fires and planned events.

We know that not every agency has the luxury of -- or need for -- a SWAT team, so it is not likely that every agency will have a specifically trained SWAT or tactical dispatch team.  However, any law enforcement officer may find him or herself responding to a situation that requires a SWAT-level response, just as any telecommunicator may find him or herself providing SWAT or tactical-level dispatching, without the benefits of specific training, selection or credentials.  This means the response must be handled as well as possible, whether or not the employee is equipped and trained to deal with it.

The more advanced and better-trained team is not always the most readily available option anyway.  Incidents unfold rapidly, so sometimes a response team isn't assembled until after casualties are amassed.  This unfortunate fact was never more evident than after the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo.  Responding law enforcement agencies were criticized for setting up a perimeter and relying on SWAT response rather than a rapid entry team.  The best option is often the most immediately available option -- the one that stops the threat first.

Columbine highlighted the need for more advanced training and different tactics at the patrol level for incidents such as an active-shooter response.  That shooting also highlighted the fact that these events don't always happen when the most highly trained and experienced personnel -- including the telecommunicators -- are ready and in position.  This does not mean every patrol officer should be trained to the same level as a SWAT officer, it simply means that every patrol officer should be better prepared to deal with the initial response to extraordinary incidents and events.  It also means that communications agencies must consider the level of training they provide to line-level telecommunicators, as they are the first response to such incidents.

Whether or not they have formal tactical dispatch teams, agencies should consider providing all telecommunicators with some formal training to respond to exceptional incidents and events.  Almost every telecommunicator has filled the role of a tactical dispatcher at one time or another -- from natural disasters to man-made incidents and planned events, any telecommunicator who has worked through localized flooding or storm damage, a multiple-alarm fire or a structure collapse, a parade or county fair has responded to some of the challenges and demands that a tactical dispatcher faces.  Whether handling calls for a specific discipline (police, fire or EMS) or across all disciplines, each calltaker and dispatcher will experience something extraordinary given enough time.

It's not a matter of if a large-scale incident will occur, but when, and knowing this can help agency administrators determine how to prepare telecommunicators to best respond based on agency size, call load and needs of the service area.  For some, a dedicated team of SWAT or tactical dispatchers is the best answer.  Others will decide to provide a higher level of response training to all telecommunicators.  To draw from the old military adage, two is one, and one is none -- if you don't have enough members to form a true team that can respond when needed, then you don't have a team.

What makes being on a SWAT or tactical dispatch team different from simply handling incidents and events with standard protocol as they happen?

As a member of a specialized team, the required skills and competence levels are structured and evaluated.  Response isn't based on the line-level employee's ability to react as each incident is encountered.  Proactive, formal training gives employees the confidence and competence to take their response to a higher level.  Just as a police officer works the street before becoming a member of the SWAT team, and must be a member of the SWAT team before becoming a sniper, skill levels for the telecommunicator are similarly built.  Being involved in a shoot-out does not qualify an officer to then be the sniper on the SWAT team any more than handling a shoot-out as a telecommunicator then makes them a SWAT/tactical dispatch team member.

The agency must decide on team selection criteria -- measurements of experience and skills -- such as tenure and written or oral testing.  Some agencies require that dispatchers participate in physical agility testing and tactical-level training with local law enforcement.

Preparing employees to properly respond, and deciding what level of response to provide, is ultimately the agency's responsibility, as is training and coordination with field responders.  The first step is for agency management to decide if and how a team is formed; the second step is to decide how and where that team is to respond.  If the team is required to respond to incidents on-scene, then the third step is to train and equip them for the specific challenges associated with field deployment.  They must train the way they are expected to work, so they will work the way they have been trained.

Mike Williams, retired deputy chief of the Chattanooga Police Department, says the training process must not take place in a vacuum.

"Just like any other team effort, all parts of the organization should train with the other respective parts of the entity in a realistic, real-time training environment to simulate an actual operation," Williams says.  "It makes no sense to expect people to work hand-in-glove during a crisis when they have never trained together prior to the event."

There are three basic tiers of response in telecommunications, and the level of response typically depends on the size of the agency.  The first tier of response is handling the incident at the primary console on the primary talkgroup for the response agency.  This is the most likely level of response that a one or two-person console agency can reasonably provide.

The second tier of response moves the incident to a secondary channel or talkgroup, and assigns another telecommunicator to handle the incident as his or her primary duty.  There may be protocol in place to consciously assign a more experienced telecommunicator to the incident, but this could present some challenges with other employees feeling usurped of their duty or deprived of valuable experience.

The third tier of response is most applicable to larger agencies and requires a formally designated or pre-determined response team based on regional or mutual-aid agreements (especially for smaller agencies that work well together).  This level of response involves sending a telecommunicator into the field to coordinate face-to-face with the incident commander at a command post.  It may also include assignment to an emergency operations center (EOC) or liaison position.

The level of response an agency can provide depends not only on agency size, but also on call load and personnel.  Even the smallest agency may determine that it can send personnel into the field if call-out situations are very infrequent -- it is simply a matter of logistics in availability, scheduling and back-filling positions.

Smaller agencies may be able to coordinate a regional response team within their county or surrounding counties.  This is often the backbone for creating a regional response team available for telecommunicator emergency response taskforce (TERT) deployments.  However, this type of coordination must be supported with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and regular training to determine call-out procedures and procurement and allocation of supplies in order to ensure success.

Williams notes that there are benefits in deploying a telecommunicator into the field to coordinate with a SWAT commander.  "It frees up tactical operators or negotiators to do what they are trained to do," he says.  "The dispatchers are professionals at what they do and want to do it.  As a result, they do a much better job at running the communications than someone who is not trained to do it and does not want to do it."

Other benefits of field deployment include the ability to communicate and log activity that is not taking place over a radio.  Many tactics and team assignments are discussed face-to-face, so incident logging can be incomplete if only information that is conveyed over the radio to the comm center is recorded.  A dispatcher working at the command post can assist in diagramming the scene and team member positions, and physically tracking resources, such as collecting car keys or accountability tags as responders check in.

The tactical dispatcher is the greatest source of intelligence and information -- even before deploying to the scene -- because they have information from the very beginning of the incident, and because they also have access to background information such as criminal history, computer aided dispatch (CAD) records, fusion centers, records management systems (RMS) files, maps and contact numbers.  A trained tactical dispatcher should feel comfortable assisting with planning and strategy, sharing information about available resources and logistics, communicating with outside agencies or support personnel and properly addressing safety issues as they arise.

The way to determine the specific role and responsibilities of an on-scene dispatcher is through policy, procedure and training -- not during an incident.

An issue that often arises during the process of building and training a deployable dispatch team is managing expectations across client agencies.  The field responders must be aware of the level of response they can expect at all times -- whether it is knowing they will only have a talkgroup and a dedicated telecommunicator assigned to work the incident from the comm center, or knowing that a tactical dispatcher automatically deploys into the field with them.  If the dispatch team has set response criteria, then the team must be available to fulfill that obligation.  If a tactical dispatcher is unavailable for some reason, field responders must be made aware so that proper resources can be allocated in the field to handle duties that would otherwise be delegated to the dispatcher.

Other concerns associated with field deployment include various risk management issues.  Criteria must be set to determine if employees are "field-deployable."  This could include prerequisites such as a medical release or physical fitness test to ensure field dispatchers are healthy enough to perform the necessary tasks.  When operating from a comm center, the employee may not be required to wear a uniform, but in the field, they must dress and act professionally when responding to the command post.  This also means equipping the employee with the necessary tools to do the job -- everything from portable radios to command boards or laptops, cellphones, air cards, go-bag, etc.  There are certain costs associated with field deployment, and the agency must evaluate and assess their ability to meet these costs before sending employees into the field ill-equipped or ill-prepared.

There are numerous training challenges for both small and large agencies.  Smaller agencies experience high-risk incidents with very low frequency. Larger agencies must be wary of complacency as they deal with similar incidents and events on a more frequent basis.  Keeping employees' skills fresh when they are only able to practice rather than apply the skills in real settings can be a challenge.  No one wants to practice and learn skills they feel will never be used.  In these situations, visualization and "what-if" discussions can keep employees engaged, especially by looking at current news stories and case studies that mirror a similar operational setting.  After-action reviews of incidents are a must for every agency, and every member should bring suggestions to the table for making improvements.  Most importantly, there should be an implementation plan in place for any improvements or suggestions after the review.

Unexpected incidents, and even large-scale planned events, tend to draw an extraordinary public safety presence.  The overall response to Columbine included more than 600 police, fire and EMS personnel from 35 different local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and 11 fire and EMS agencies.  Whether the incident is a natural disaster, active-shooter situation or planned event, there will be challenges regarding interoperability, staging, logistics and personnel management.  National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) concepts should be incorporated in every agency's training and response plans.  Much of NIMS and ICS training is online and free -- it should not be overlooked as a valuable resource to help ensure that as a profession, we are moving toward standardizing our response.

Two key questions based on basic ICS principles will help even the greenest telecommunicator maintain some semblance of order during the initial response phase of an expanding incident: "Who is in command?" and "Where is the command post?"  If the telecommunicator demonstrates a firm understanding of incident management in the earliest stages of the response, it will help the first responders focus on managing the incident and prioritizing response.

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