Ambush Incident Response 2021

by Dick Fairburn


I should start by introducing myself … I am Dick Fairburn, currently a Public Safety Director in a downstate Illinois community where I lead a police department, professional fire department and 911 center. I have more than 40 years of public safety experience, starting as a police dispatcher in 1976. Yeah, I’m old, and getting rather grouchy as well. After my dispatch year I served as a professional firefighter for more than 6 years until I was laid off due to budget cuts which closed my station. Then I came over to the dark side as a cop because I like to shoot cool guns, drive fast cars and get in a fight once in a while. I’ve given up the fighting part lately because I bruise more easily now and heal slower.


Since 1983 I have written articles for police publications like POLICE magazine and the Police Marksman. The Police1.com website bought the Police Marksman magazine about 12 years ago and I served as that website’s Law Enforcement Firearms columnist until recently.


BowMac recently asked me to write for their Blog because the BowMac training program has been a very large part of my career since 1999. I was an instructor at the Illinois State Police Academy (ISPA) in 1999 when I first saw the BowMac Initial Response course and instantly appreciated what I saw as a ground-breaking training program. I managed the ISPA Bowmac program until my retirement there in 2017 … 18 years and more than 700 three-day Initial Response classes. We also made a deal with BowMac to train the Command Post class and presented a few of them statewide until budgetary problems became crippling. At ISPA I also developed a police-specific leadership course variation of the Initial Response curriculum, which adds a day of live-action scenarios to the model city-based scenarios. The “Street Leadership” course remains the ISPA’s promotional school for all new ISP Sergeants.


The most serious threat I see today in US Law Enforcement is Ambush Attacks. According to the Fraternal Order of Police, there have been 40 ambush attacks on US police officers in the first half of 2021 (through June 30). The FOP statistics counted 48 such attacks in all of 2020. So far this year, we’ve seen 40 officers wounded and 13 killed in these attacks.


For more than 10 years I have presented an ambush awareness/survival seminar at the annul convention of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA). My research in this field eventually led me to several ambush wins by police officers and by debriefing those winners a clear pattern of behaviors became apparent.


The six common tactics used by the ambush winners that can absolutely save lives:


1. Approach the call with STEALTH whenever possible,

Respond without lights & siren if possible, on any suspicious call, at least when you get close to the reported location.


2. “Think” KILL ZONE,

Get an image of the reported location in mind and ask yourself, if I were setting an ambush at this location, where would I be? Where would my Kill Zone be? Plan your approach based on that hasty analysis.


3. Use a TEAM Response whenever possible,

Unless the call suggests lives are in imminent danger, slow your approach and wait for backup units. Stage away from the locale and form a contact team.


4. Be on HIGH ALERT!,

What seems out of place when you arrive? One ambush winner spotted fired 5.56mm brass on the parking lot, alerting him that the ambusher had a rifle. Another winner responded to an armed robbery at a bar, but when he peeked in a window, the patrons seemed perfectly relaxed. Small details – sights or sounds – can give you situational awareness.


5. If the incident is an ambush, deliver an INSTANT RESPONSE,

If the attacker is even mildly competent, the first arriving officer may be caught completely unawares. Do not hesitate, respond instantly to the threat you face.


6. Counterattack with OVERWHELMING FORCE!

Basic infantry tactics, if caught in a close ambush – Attack the Ambush! Turn into the threat and charge it while delivering all the firepower you have available. If you are still in your vehicle when attacked, use the vehicle as both cover and a weapon.


If the attack is from a distance, or your counterattack is blocked by terrain, exit the Kill Zone as quickly as possible.


Those of you who have been trained through the BowMac Initial Response course will be thinking “big picture” by this time. How will I use the 7 Critical Tasks to manage the crisis phase of an ambush scene, assuming you did not get caught in the trap yourself?

While some incidents qualify for an Active Shooter/Rapid Deployment response, if an officer is down in the Kill Zone of an ambush, you MUST prevent independent action until the threat is neutralized. Any attempted rescue by a single officer will likely just result in another victim down in the Kill Zone.


Whatever their rank, the first officer not caught in the ambush must assume command of the scene, identify the kill zone and designate an initial rally point for those officers already responding at warp speed. You must burn through the fog of battle, get their attention, and divert them from responding directly into the scene. Designating a formal staging area should follow soon, a place to gather responding EMS assets.

Either you or a designated tactical commander must take charge of arriving officers at the rally point and determine if there is a chance for rescue of the downed officer(s). Factors entering into this decision must include the availability of rolling cover (Bearcat or another armored vehicle). The tactical leader must also assess whether the victim(s) in the Kill Zone are viable … in other words, is there a chance of saving a life? Risking more lives to recover a deceased officer cannot be justified. Saying “No, there is no chance he is still alive,” will be the toughest decision that commander will ever face.

After the violence we saw in the summer or 2020, we all realized that the hair trigger status of mass lawlessness is a constant threat. With the defunding efforts we see across the country and the huge shift in police authority implemented in Colorado and Illinois, the future of our profession is in question.


I fear we face dark days ahead. Get yourself and your agency physically and mentally ready for worst-case scenarios. Review your training and policies and make updates the best you can. Link up with all your nearby agencies and renew mutual-aid friendships or formal agreements you will all need.


My goal with these blog postings is to stimulate an exchange of ideas. We must maintain a free exchange of ideas if we are to adapt to the new challenges and survive.

Adopt this mindset and teach it all of your people: Someday I will die, but NOT HERE, NOT TODAY! Today I will survive to go home to my family!


Whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts, speak your mind – we will all learn from the discussion.



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BowMac Educational Services / RSI Inc.


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