Mission Critical

In the November, 2010, Train the Trainer column, I shared some brief comments from Sid Heal on critical incident training at supervisory and management levels. In case you didn’t have a chance to read that article, one of the most relevant points was that law enforcement spends a lot of money on training officers for crises on the streets. We teach our personnel how to evaluate and assess, drive and shoot properly, arrest and control within the law, and so on. But the training provided to supervisors and managers on how to handle a critical incident is sometimes lacking or even nonexistent. This is the topic of the month. Some of the ideas we’ll discuss come from my humble career, but I also have to recognize the influence of others—most notably Sid Heal—for helping me understand this subject more completely. 

Large departments, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, take this so seriously that they put lieutenants and above through comprehensive training programs to prepare them. The farsighted goal of this training is to have a command team structure available 24/7. Your agency may not have personnel and resources comparable to LASD, but it’s a given that critical incidents of one nature or another have most likely happened in your jurisdiction and will probably take place again. Recognizing this, I’m asking you to accept a new challenge. If someone isn’t already doing something to fill this verifiable training need, then I suggest you step up.

To get started, your relationship as a trainer with potential incident commanders is important. For an instructor tasked with training those above him, this can be a challenge. There are a number of dynamics involved. Obviously, the instructor has to take a professional approach. There has to be a certain amount of respect for the higher ranks. Both tact and appropriate humor are good assets, as well.

Another aspect that should be present is a topic that we’ve discussed before. Call it what you like, but for me it’s summed up with the phrase “truth to power,” which means that, when necessary, good instructors will tell their superiors what they need to hear and not necessarily what they want to hear. Respect, tact and professionalism are incorporated into this concept. Supervisors and managers must be afforded honest training and feedback on how capable they are and how well they grasp important concepts to improve their ability to handle a given high-risk street event effectively.

At the other end of the spectrum is a presumption that those you train have an equally healthy approach to developing their skills. This begins with a perspective devoid of ego. I’ve worked with some good folks who were of higher rank but not higher ego. These are true professionals who recognize that they need help in developing their ability to manage critical incidents. Unfortunately for our profession and regardless of rank, this isn’t an across-the-board truth.

 I suspect that, like me, you’ve also had-to-work-with managers who have an attitude that doesn’t allow them to learn from the advice of their subordinates. Self-importance is often the first page in their playbook. This is a difficult proposition for a trainer trying to do the right thing. It may be complicated even more by past personal interactions between the sergeant or lieutenant and the trainer. It could even lead to the temptation to avoid training a superior on this topic. This isn’t a healthy approach. In reality, failing to help develop—or at least honestly trying to do so—could lead to negative consequences. The personnel involved, the agency itself and the community they serve could suffer damaging effects from a poorly trained and ill-prepared incident commander.

What Is It?

A critical incident is an event that has a negative impact on the community and requires courses of action by those capable of mitigating the immediate and long-term effects. Although a critical incident is often thought of in the context of a criminal act (e.g., barricaded suspect, hostage rescue, active shooter), it can also be natural or mechanical in origin. We call them disasters for good reason. Those rooted in nature include wildfires, earthquakes and floods. Mechanical examples involve crashes of airplanes and trains.


Although training for a crisis may seem like a no-brainer, consider this fact: When the proverbial fan is hit with a brown, semi-solid sutbstance, someone’s going to have to lead your agency’s response. It’s a given that good leadership is a major factor in dealing with a crisis. This shouldn’t be overlooked— nor should it be taken for granted. Just because someone is given the stripes or bars doesn’t make them a leader. Similarly, egos should be in check. The worth of a good critical incident commander is found from the neck up. Good leadership skills will help save this person in charge from disintegrating into a cranial/anal inversion.

In a critical incident context, this refers to everyone from the chief down to the street cop. At one point or another, any one of these folks could find themselves in a crisis-leadership position. Under such circumstances, there is an immense need for positive guidance. However, personnel who aren’t properly trained and prepared are vulnerable to being overwhelmed by events. Sometimes referred to as OBE, this condition is manifest by a number of behaviors, none of which instill confidence in subordinates facing stressful conditions. Symptoms include indecisiveness or back-to-back changes of orders without good cause, yelling and temper tantrums, lack of flexibility and other negative behaviors directed at subordinates. To one degree or another, it may even lead to a mental or physical shutdown.

A good example from the Band of Brothers series: During their attack on the city of Foy, the paratroopers are led by Lt. Dyke, a substandard, incompetent and poorly trained company commander. As the assault meets deadly German resistance, he becomes the poster boy for a classic OBE moment. His response to this dynamic and rapidly changing situation with good men dying around him is to huddle behind cover, give rigid, repetitive orders that aren’t tactically sound and repeatedly scream at his troops. An integral part of preventing this from happening at your agency is the training of good leaders.

Make a Decision

Hand in hand with good leadership is the ability to make good decisions. Especially under crisis conditions, the choices made are instrumental in resolving the problem. Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worst you can do is nothing.” Based on this, recognize that you cannot be perfect in your decision making.

At critical moments, trying to develop a bulletproof plan eats up precious time and may compound our problems rather than help solve them. Gen. George Patton gave us a relevant thought: “A good plan executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

Again, it’s better to make a decision than not make one at all. If it turns out to be wrong, learning can still take place for those who are willing to admit their mistakes. Perhaps you’ve experienced the moment when a situation cries out for a decision, but the incident commander was reluctant to make one. In some cases, this is reflective of the Lt. Dyke syndrome. It may also come from a mistaken belief that waiting for the suspect to make the next move absolves the commander of responsibility. If something goes wrong due to a lack of police action (e.g., the suspect kills a hostage), then this type of flawed thinking tries to place responsibility on the suspect. In truth, however, the responsibility may more accurately belong to the decision maker who failed to act.

Equally symptomatic is a reliance on the “time is on our side” mentality. Although we’re good at resolving situations when we can slow them down, the above phrase is often used as a crutch that gives the initiative to the suspect rather than a true tactical concept.

We know the decision-making process is influenced by both external and internal factors. In the case of the latter, these include intuition, logic and experience. External factors may include pressures generated by superiors, peers and even subordinates. An incident commander should be trained to expect these and not let them infringe on how they progress toward a sound decision.

Positive, helpful input from others is part of this. But when an individual— especially of higher rank or maybe a city official—starts injecting orders or suggestions that aren’t sound, the incident commander may have to step up. One way is to respectfully ask for the individual’s cooperation and silence unless requested to get involved. Another step is to ask the person if they’re assuming command of the operation. Where it goes from there will be decided at that moment, but I believe that such a step when needed may reduce a commander’s problems in this context.

The stress on an incident commander during a crisis, especially as it first unfolds, may be intense. This is due to such factors as a lack of intelligence about what is really going on, not enough personnel and resources, and other issues. With these as a given, what are some training tips for decision makers? A formula that’s applicable consists of four questions: Is the contemplated action lawful? Is it within policy guidelines? Is it tactically sound? Is it ethical? This is a good foundation for decision making.


We’ve gone as far as time permits for this topic. Next month, we’ll continue this discussion, focusing on some other critical concepts for incident commander training.

I strongly suggest that, as an instructor at your department, you define what the training needs are in this respect. If you then have an opportunity to make a difference through training geared toward helping your prospective incident commanders succeed, take it on. You could be making a significant contribution that you may someday be proud of.

Train safe, and God Bless America.

4 Keys to Training Incident Commanders

The process should include the following components to prevent a Lt. Dyke moment:

1. Decisiveness: As we know from President Theodore Roosevelt, commanders must be willing to make decisions. Without that commitment, they aren’t going to manage the event in an effective manner and may not function at all.

2. Flexibility: Whether dealing with criminal acts or disasters, an ability to react to changes in the dynamics of a situation is important. Using training to stress this fact should help personnel recognize the value of being flexible in their critical thinking, analysis and response.

3. Simplicity: As possible courses of action get more complex, they hold the potential of bad things happening. This is especially true under the stressful conditions of an unfolding event in which lives are at stake. Whenever possible, use the KISS method. If orders are given under such circumstances, it’s suggested that the giver be trained to elicit a “read back” from the receiver to get confirmation. This will help address any information filtering and prevent comprehension errors.

4. Delegation: Used interchangeably with empowerment, this is a concept that must be trained into an incident commander’s response. During a crisis, law enforcement’s response cannot and should not rest on one person’s shoulders. The temptation to multitask on your own will be present. At times, this may be necessary, but as law enforcement’s response to an incident grows, responsibilities should be delegated.


About The Author


Law Officer is the only major law enforcement publication and website owned and operated by law enforcement. This unique facet makes Law Officer much more than just a publishing company but is a true advocate for the profession.

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