Casualties

by

Dick Fairburn


As I mentioned in Blog #1 last month, so far in 2021 we are already well into record territory for the number of officers ambushed in the US and the number of officers killed by gunfire will be the highest in many years. The all-time record number of officers murdered dates back to 1973 when 132 officers were feloniously killed. With the advent of soft body armor, trauma centers and life-flight choppers since 1973, we will hopefully never reach that level again.


When I emphasized the need to control the response of officers to an “officer down” or ambush call, the goal is to avoid adding more officers to those already down in the Hot Zone (I prefer the term Kill Zone for a human threat hazard and Hot Zone for any other type of hazard – though the ICS purists don’t agree). Any rescue of a downed officer must be attempted only after gathering the manpower and equipment necessary to make success likely. Put your people in a position to win.


For several years I have used movie video clips to illustrate important learning points in my leadership classes. One is a scene from We were Soldiers. In the clip the Lieutenant Colonel, played by Mel Gibson, identifies a couple of key leaders as “killed” during a training session. He then tells all his officers and NCOs to “learn the job of the man above you in rank and teach your job to the man below you.” He sums up the importance of what we now call continuity of operations with a simple, no-BS statement … “we will be landing under fire, men will die.”


Our mission in public safety is far different from a military combat operation, but the threats we face today makes me think we should consider some of the military mindset. After the video clip I just described, I put up a question on the Power Point slide, “what is the acceptable casualty rate for a police operation?” After a few moments of silence someone in the room will generally say “zero.” In one class I did about 10 years ago a young man in the back of the room said, “it depends on the mission, sir.” His manner of speech and haircut marked him as recently returned from the Global War on Terror and his military mindset illustrated the change we need to make in our thinking.


This example was from a law enforcement class but there is no difference in the fire service. But, in my fire service experience, our acceptable casualty rate has not always been zero. I have been injured several times in my career and most of them, including the most serious, were as a firefighter. In the 15-man fire department where I served (yes, we were all men then) we had a long-standing culture of taking risks. Risks you would never see firefighters take today. When I started in 1976 we went into burning buildings and put the fire out - period. Whether or not the building was known to be occupied, we put the fire out. We generally did it with multiple one-inch rubber booster hoses and if you took the time to put on one of those new-fangled air packs you would be branded a pussy by one of the old guys. We sucked up a lot of nasty plastic smoke and got hurt all the time, and mostly just shrugged it off. Last week I went to the funeral of one of the old guys I worked with more than 40 years ago. That leaves only one of them still alive, barely. The do or die culture of that department didn’t kill any of us outright, but it certainly shortened many lives. The fire service has spent the last 45 years changing their equipment and tactics in an attempt to get their casualty rate to zero.


Here is my question for this month, send in your thoughts. Is there any situation where a police or fire commander would knowingly send his people into harms way when there is an almost certain possibility one or more could die?


Military planners have a formula they use to predict casualties, in both training and combat missions. Commanders must then decide if the objective of the mission is worth the estimated price he will pay in dead and wounded soldiers. If the objective is important enough, the order will be given knowing many of his people may not survive.

When might we adopt the military mindset that we will attempt a risky operation knowing casualties will be certain? Based on my experience, when the lives of innocent children are at risk.


Retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is one of the best-known speakers at police seminars, the purveyor of the “Sheepdog” mindset for first responders. In his seminar he outlines the 2004 Beslan, Russia school attack where more than 300 students and teachers were slaughtered by terrorists. A number of military special operations soldiers also died in the rescue attempt, and they knew very well the threat they were facing. LTC Grossman asks a question; If we face a similar situation here, dozens of school children held by numerous terrorists, what will we do?

What if the Incident Commander (IC) at that hostage situation is faced with a time deadline after one child is murdered before the live TV cameras, with the promise of more slaughter to follow? What if the on-scene intelligence indicates that the arsenal of small arms and explosives the terrorists have will spell almost certain doom to some or all of the SWAT officers we will send in? That commander will be faced with a terrible decision – leave the innocent children to their fate – or send in police officers who will almost certainly die in the rescue attempt. The commander must decide if the death of any of the police officers he sends is simply the price we must pay that day to rescue our lambs. I have spent more than 40 years working with military, police a