Ever since I deployed my first flashbangs back in 1983 and yes, I'm a certified old fart I've been intrigued by them. I'm talking serious testosterone and major macho moments when I first saw those devices go off they were way cool. But in those days, we admittedly knew very little about them beyond the fact that they exploded with an accompanying brilliant flash of light.
Fast forwarding to 2008, I've now been around hundreds of flashbang initiations since that day 25 years ago. Although they're a great tactical tool, I've also found that they potentially can be very problematic within the context of correct operational use and potential liability. If they aren't used properly, bad things may happen. A critical factor in preventing disaster is properly training for successful flashbang deployments. The key person in this context is the instructor who teaches SWAT cops how to use flashbangs.
Flashbangs also known as diversionary devices, distraction devices, light-sound and noise-flash devices have been available for more than 30 years. From the early days, when the Israelis and the British SAS first used these devices in hostage rescue operations, they've continued to improve and evolve, and have become effective tools for law enforcement use during challenging tactical incidents. Today's devices are indeed safer than those earlier types, but the true safety factor rests literally in the hands of the officer who will deploy a diversionary device.
As with other law enforcement use-of-force disciplines, the diversionary device instructor has an important task. They must first have the necessary ability and knowledge to teach cops. The latter are a unique group of people who will tolerate a poor instructor for only so long before turning their thoughts to other matters. In their distracted and bored state of mind, they may not pick up on important aspects of safely using these tools, whether in a training environment or during an actual operation. To prevent this, it's important that the instructor fully understands and uses adult learning behavior concepts so the student retains important information. Appropriate humor and visual aids, like inert diversionary devices, videos and Power Point presentations, help create a positive learning environment. Note: Never use a live device as a visual aid!
Beyond this, the diversionary device instructor must be well-versed in a variety of related topics, as an instructor is expected to be the agency's expert. The overall physics of what makes diversionary devices work as explosive devices are important to grasp. Without this fundamental knowledge, complacency and misunderstandings can develop.
High on the instructional checklist is the proper handling of diversionary devices. Adequate safety equipment is a good starting point. With the mandatory requirement for the use of items, such as ballistic helmets and vests, eye/ear protection and Nomex gloves, the instructor can set the standard for officers who deploy diversionary devices.
Even more important is the correct use of deployment techniques. Movie portrayals of SWAT operations sometimes depict tactical team members throwing "stun grenades" into rooms without first looking through the door, let alone having a cover officer to protect them. Such cinematic depictions are totally off the mark. One of the fundamental rules for proper use is that you must first look into the target area before deploying a diversionary device. Another is that the officer deploying should have someone there to cover them as they introduce the flashbang into a room. While this may not be always possible, it's a good rule of thumb to follow as much as events will allow.
You may notice that I avoid using the words "tossing" or "throwing" when referring to deployments. I suggest that my fellow instructors do the same. These words convey the wrong message to officers about correct use. Picture this: A SWAT cop is tasked with the flashbang deployment at the start of a search warrant. The phrase "throw the device into the room" is in the back of their mind as they get ready because that's what their instructor taught them. The training phrases in their head and the accelerated tempo of the event may overpower their intent to place the device accurately in through the door. The flashbang is tossed too far into the room, with no caution and lands on flammable material or even a person. That's definitely a bad thing. Again, a controlled, precise delivery is required. Moreover, failing to look into a target environment before deploying a diversionary device creates problems at the operational level and raises potential liability issues.
A diversionary device instructor teaches and preaches the importance of using proper terminology. The term "stun grenade" is an example: The modern diversionary device does not stun people, nor is it a grenade. It may create a psychological and physiological diversion which affects individuals inside a structure and gives operators a brief window of opportunity to exploit for tactical purposes.
Potential Concerns in the Tactical Environment
An important issue that an instructor should address is the potential for fire, which is a very real threat. I have personally seen fellow team members frantically trying to put out a couch fire that was sparked by a diversionary device. While this constitutes another good reason for controlled, precise deployment, a fire could be started even if the officers observe safety protocols when using these devices. It's wise for the instructor to train SWAT cops to anticipate the possibility of such a flame-up and develop an immediate response plan (to be documented in the team SOPs). This may include staging equipment, such as fire extinguishers, near the breach point so they can be quickly retrieved.
Another of the "what ifs" of using flashbangs is the possibility of children or elderly persons being found in the tactical environment. Depending upon the circumstances, officers should be trained to protect and control these individuals when they're in a target location. Care should be taken to shield them from potential harm until the situation is totally under law enforcement control. In cases where a child is found inside, it may be appropriate for a tactical officer to immediately and safely remove the youngster from the location, effectively treating that child as the most important person inside the tactical environment. Once outside, the child can be turned over to perimeter units or other support personnel, allowing the SWAT cop to return to the operation.
My point: Instructors should emphasize the importance of proper care for those who are most likely innocent and could potentially be injured if proactive steps are not taken to protect them.
Before, During & After Flashbang Deployment
I believe use-of-force instructors should be active in developing and maintaining agency policy, and this is especially true with diversionary devices. Reviewing the policy to keep it current is an important method to protect the officers who use these tools, as well as the agency itself. In a worst-case scenario, if the law enforcement agency does not have a policy at all, the instructor should step forward and advocate the adoption of a policy as soon as possible.
Communicating the policy is equally important. It should be clearly understood by end users, tactical commanders and management staff. Similarly, proper documentation of diversionary device use and training can't be overlooked. This includes maintaining appropriate ATF-required information, such as the serial number of each
device as well as when and how it was used. For those of you who aren't familiar with the ATF's requirements, I suggest that you get a good grasp on what's expected. Manufacturer representatives usually have a good understanding of what is necessary to be in compliance with such regulations.
Finally, an honest evaluation of when things go wrong should be part of the diversionary device instructor's responsibilities. Using their knowledge to assess an incident, determining whether a device malfunctioned or if there was an improper deployment technique involved, the instructor must help the SWAT commander and the department identify the problem and take steps to ensure that similar circumstances don't occur again. Internally, this may include remedial or advanced training in the use of these devices. Outside the department, it logically falls on the instructor's shoulders to contact the manufacturer's representatives and discuss the problem with them. The instructor should also be sure to properly document any aspects as necessary in order to memorialize them.
I don't get to deploy diversionary devices on tactical operations anymore. These days I teach a Diversionary Device Instructor course. While it isn't as tactically stimulating as using them during a real SWAT entry, I find it very rewarding to have the opportunity to share information. It's my hope that the ideas in this article will reach those of you who are responsible for flashbang training and give you the opportunity to do the same for your officers.