Force Science News #125:

Voices behind the stats: What others say about downed-officer rescues

There’s a dog handler whose training for saving an injured K-9 is “far superior” to what he receives for saving a fellow officer…


And there’s a supervisor who says he’d send himself into a hot zone to rescue a downed colleague before he’d send anyone under his command…


And there’s a patrol officer who has figured a way to rig up old vests as a makeshift shield to use in extracting a wounded cop from danger.


These are the human voices behind the research statistics, and there’s value in hearing what they have to say.


Earlier this year, Dr. Matthew Sztajnkrycer, an emergency medicine specialist, a “SWAT doc,” and an advisor to the Force Science Research Center, conducted a 23-question survey through Force Science News and, regarding the rescue of downed officers from active fields of fire.


More than 1,700 of you responded, indicating a dearth of training in this area (only half had received any rescue instruction in the last 5 years) and a strong inclination to attempt a rescue, regardless of the downed officer’s condition and the risk involved.


Today, we offer a representative sampling of “free form” comment entered by respondents as part of the survey. More than 500 were submitted, anonymously, and although they were not statistically analyzed, Sztajnkrycer considers them significant.


“This is law enforcement speaking, and the voices of officers who’ve ‘been there’ are very powerful,” he says. “People’s words often give a richer impression of the data than statistics alone.”


This cross-section, he believes, highlights “the conflict and the angst” that can lie behind rescue decisions, the need for better training in this life-or-death subject, and some practical measures that may prove useful when you are faced with a downed-officer situation.


Perhaps most important, what others say may challenge or reinforce your own views and experiences so that you can think critically about this subject before you face it, rather than waiting until you are in desperate circumstances.




Saving dogs vs. saving cops?


My department has never conducted downed-officer rescue training. I have been a K-9 supervisor for over 17 years and the training I give to rescue down K-9 partners is far superior to any training the officers receive to save other officers.


In fact, my K-9 first-aid kit is used in the field on officers, as the officers’ first-aid kit contains only Band-aids, an ambu bag, some tape, and 4X4s. Since I have thought about this, it is very troubling.


A time to risk, a time to stop?


Weighing and minimizing risk is part of police work. Risk cannot be eliminated entirely, only minimized. A good example to look at might be the Worcester (MA) fire that killed 6 firefighters. High-risk rescue attempts were tried and failed. The men were ready to continue attempting rescues, but the on-scene commander had to make the hard judgment and order his men to stop. There was a time for risky action and a time to stop. His action saved lives but he had to bear the truly terrible burden of command with the hard, but correct, decision.


“Rescue” yourself when possible?


I was the subject of an officer “rescue” after being shot on a SWAT operation. I was able to walk out of the kill zone after being hit. If I had simply gone down and made others save me, in our situation undoubtedly more officers would have been hit.


I think a critical aspect of downed-officer protocol should be mind-set training for the injured officer. If you can “self evacuate” or engage in self-care do so, without putting others at further risk to save you. This will not always be possible, but it can be a factor in some cases.


“Rational thinking can go out the window” ?


My agency has done downed-officer training in a “shoot house” environment using Simunitions. It often takes a few repetitions to get officers to think and operate from a rational perspective rather than from an emotional perspective.


When one of your own is down it is more personal. Rational, logical thinking can go out the window and a “rescue the officer at all costs” mentality can quickly take over, resulting in bad judgment and further loss of life or injury which then compound the situation drastically.


Bottom-line result of “premature” action?


During an attempt to rescue 2 downed SRT teammates, I was shot by a barricaded suspect. At the time, the team had no special equipment (body-bunker shield, armored vehicle) to aid in extracting. Team had NO training in downed-officer extraction. I reacted prematurely when I saw suspect fire at wounded officer lying in front yard of residence.


I failed to communicate my intentions to other officers accurately, failed to ensure they understood my intentions, and failed to ensure they concurred with my decision. Rescue failed. 2 officers KIA, 3 officers WIA during incident.


Proper focus: Eliminate the threat?


Many years ago an Israeli SWAT officer told me they don’t concern themselves with rescuing downed officers, because the goal is to terminate the threat. He explained that any attempted rescue is likely to result in additional casualties while delaying rescue and/or diminishing the quality of the care given the wounded officer. He said the best thing that can be done for the officer is to eliminate the danger first, then take the time to properly care for him and remove him from the scene.


Pray…and move?


It’s the worst part of our job, seeing a brother or sister in urgent need of help. You’ve just gotta go! Pray, plan, and move.


A supervisor’s judgment?


I would be more likely to assume the role of rescuer than to authorize a rescue attempt by one of the officers under my command.


Visualization and workouts tailored to the task?


Academies should make downed-officer rescue mandatory training so officers/deputies who work together are on the same sheet of music, instead of different techniques/ideas being ironed out when the bullets are flying.


I have received some officer-rescue training, but like most training areas, not enough. Most of my preparation comes from consistent visualization more than anything else. I also try to incorporate exercises into my workouts that focus on movements/working muscles associated with an officer rescue.


Creative planning before it’s needed?


While my department has no formal training about officer-down rescues, most of the officers I work with and I have discussed what we would do in different situations to help rescue each other. This has included purchasing tactical vests ourselves and placing hand-me-down military rifle plates into the panels of expired soft body armor panels, so we could wear them or hang them from a straight baton as a makeshift shield during a rescue attempt.


Minimum needs?


Downed-officer rescue requires a minimum of rifles and a shield, if possible. Rifles are the most important tool. Stand-off, accurate suppressing fire (yes, I said suppressing fire in a domestic LE situation) is absolutely essential.


Immoral risk?


Risking lives to save an obviously dead co-worker is immoral.


A core belief?


Those who would not risk their own life to save the life of another (officer or not) should not be police officers. We run to the sound of gunfire, not from it!


Logic needed, not emotional responses?


We have seen more and more large-scale incidents where injury and loss of life occur, both to citizens and officers. Making judgment calls needs to be based on rational logic, not emotional responses. In medicine, it is called triage.


We need to value the life and safety of those we are sworn to protect and partner with, and with this comes the realization that we took on a risk when we took our oaths. But we should not needlessly give our lives or health in incidents where positive outcomes are very unlikely.


“He carried me out to safety” ?


I was a downed officer once. A barricaded suspect shot me in the chest at point-blank range. It was in a barn and he was in the haymow that I was searching. I made it down to the ground when in came a fellow officer who picked me up and carried me out to safety. Then when the squad would not come to get me, he carried me to them. He is a Vietnam- decorated vet.


In combat and on the street?


I would not risk another officer’s life unless there is a major chance of successful extraction/aid being rendered. I will never leave anyone under my command behind—never. I didn’t do it in combat, I won’t do it on the street.


Big trucks as cover?


Have Plan B, C, or D ready if A doesn’t work. People forget that even a garbage truck could be a good vehicle to help cover a downed officer and can be gotten in a reasonable amount of time. Also a fire tanker truck can stop a lot of bullets. Even small departments will have both vehicles available.


Lingering after-burn?


In my one true case of “hot zone rescue,” we waited for additional backup before attempting to rescue a gunshot victim. The man died, and even with the ME telling us later that the man had been hit in the carotid artery, after all these years later (15), the feeling of helplessness still bothers me!


“I’ll be there when they need me most” ?


It is important that each one of my officers knows that I will do everything possible to rescue them. I ask a lot of them and they need to know they can trust me and that I’ll be there for them when they need me most. If I won’t come and get them, they may not come and get me!


Life-or-death priorities?


Lives must be prioritized. I will risk an officer’s life to save an innocent person. I may risk an officer’s life to save a savable first responder. I will not risk an officer’s life to save the life of a suspect.


No help for the helper?


My friend responded to a downed officer last year and his efforts kept the officer alive one day so his family could be with him. My friend has not had any help from the department in dealing with the stress involved. Officers involved in these things need mental health help for a longer time than most departments are giving.


“The will to stay alive in that dark moment” ?


I knew this job was dangerous when I took it. Any officer who is not in touch with the fact that they may have to die trying to save someone else needs to step back and take a hard look at why they are here.


Police work is a calling from a higher authority, not just a way to make a living. When an officer needs help, they have to know that they will get it from those they work side by side with on a daily basis. This is what gives you the will to stay alive in that dark moment. Just knowing there are others who will do what it takes to get you to safety is the greatest survival tool you can have when you are down and unable to move.


“Even if it’s an obvious suicide mission…”?


I am not about to let a fellow officer die. Even if it’s an obvious suicide mission, I will nevertheless make the attempt to save them. Without any training, my tools available (handgun) will be used to keep the suspect “busy” while I make my attempt. God be with me after that.


Ever hear this administrative response before?


I attempted to get permission to attend downed-officer rescue training to bring back to our agency, but was denied.




Written by Force Science Institute

June 19th, 2009 at 3:06 pm

© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.