The PPE & Other Basic Needs of Tactical Officers

by Richard Schoeberl

Law enforcement faces a myriad of challenges when responding to hazardous situations. In the wake of intelligence that al Qaeda is relentlessly pursuing the development or purchase of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) – coupled with the fact that the United States has received a failing grade in the preparedness to respond to a WMD threat – it is more important than ever before to have “Hazmat-Ready” tactical teams across the country.

Recently, a bipartisan panel – i.e., The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism – was established by Congress for the sole purpose of addressing the threat a WMD attack poses to the United States The panel issued a failing grade to the nation as a whole on its lack of preparedness to handle a biological, nuclear, or chemical weapon attack. More specifically, the report, released on 2 January 2010, states that, “Of 17 grades, the report card includes three failing ‘F’ grades on: (a) rapid and effective response to bioterrorism; (b) Congressional oversight of homeland security and intelligence; and  (c) national security workforce recruitment.”

The study is almost surreal in some respects, primarily because it comes almost a full decade after both the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 that killed close to 3,000 U.S. citizens and the anthrax attacks, shortly thereafter, that left several more Americans dead and a number of others infected when letters were mailed to U.S. Senators and several media offices. If the Commission’s study is accurate, it is in agreement with other assessments that the government is not progressing in the right direction and, furthermore, failing to take the countermeasures needed to shelter the nation from the horrendous threats posed by a WMD attack.

One of the panel members, former U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) pointed out that “… we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve when we know al Qaeda is interested in bioweapons. In a time where we already sit on guard awaiting al Qaeda’s next attempted attack, we still find ourselves playing catch-up in an effort to get ahead of the curve. If we sit idle and unprepared, we will find ourselves reacting to another attack instead of being proactive.”

The Rapid Growth of an Ancient Threat

Terrorism has been in existence for thousands of years, and the progressive growth, particularly in recent years, of the means to terrorize has evolved immeasurably. Looming in the wake of intelligence that al Qaeda has been attempting to obtain biological weapons, it is difficult to believe that the United States is still not prepared to respond effectively to the threats posed by modern terrorism. Moreover, despite the fact that al Qaeda’s efforts to terrorize the United States and U.S. allies continue, the nation’s law-enforcement community is still not prepared to handle, much less respond effectively to, an attack using biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons.

What is perhaps even more unsettling is that, despite spending billions of dollars on equipment and training, the United States is still far behind in developing, and practicing, the countermeasures needed to respond to and combat a WMD attack. When, not if, another attack occurs it will almost assuredly be delivered in such a way that the first responders to arrive on-scene would have to have been tactically trained in order to effectively neutralize the threat they encounter.

Since the inception – in Los Angeles, in 1968 – of the first SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team, thousands of law-enforcement agencies and organizations throughout the world have developed similar units of their own. The tests facing SWAT teams today vary greatly, of course, from response to response and from one nation to another. Typically faced with a barricaded subject – e.g., in a narcotics raid or bank robbery – the training needed and the responses recommended for SWAT teams drastically changed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Moreover, knowing that al-Qaeda is actively seeking to obtain chemical and/or biological weapons, SWAT members are now faced with the problem of responding to terrorist incidents while outfitted in special gear. Although WMD attacks are not yet a common threat, SWAT members know they must be diligent in their training so long as al Qaeda continues its efforts to acquire WMDs.

The Dilemma: How to Respond to a Changing Threat

In short – and there should be no mistake about it: The threat posed by WMDs is real – some would say imminent – and the efforts by terrorist groups to acquire nuclear, biological, and/or chemical weapons or devices have increased dramatically in recent years. For that reason alone, tactical officers throughout the country must not only be in position to respond to assailants using WMDs, they also must be prepared to operate and work in an environment contaminated by a possible dirty bomb or a biological or chemical weapon.

Preparing to respond to a nuclear, chemical, or biological crime scene has become a new and immensely serious undertaking for tactical officers – partly because, until recently, the response to WMD “incidents” was usually left up to technicians who were both equipped and trained to handle the dangers associated with a situation involving hazardous materials. In recent years, however, because of issues over and beyond response – the task of clearing and securing the incident scene, for example, and the preservation and collection of evidence – law-enforcement agencies have been required to train, and use, tactical officers outfitted with various types of protective gear, specifically including personal protective equipment (PPE).

Today, however, when responding to a WMD incident, traditional first responders such as firefighters and EMTs (emergency medical technicians) cannot be expected to also carry out the duties of tactical law-enforcement officers. In the current more rigorous operational climate, therefore, law-enforcement officers must themselves be prepared to meet the challenges associated with a WMD threat – and those who are not tactically trained when arriving at the scene will not be prepared to address the full situation and, in all likelihood, will ultimately be added to the rapidly growing list of casualties. 

Greater Danger, Plus an Escalating List of Tasks

Because tactical officers generally tend to receive more training time than most other first responders, they also would be better suited at responding to a WMD situation and would be able to contain the scene more rapidly than their colleagues in other disciplines could. The first responders on the scene not only must be prepared to handle the dangers presented by the hazardous material itself, but also should be equally prepared to carry out that important task – while at the same time coping with a chemical or biological agent, apprehending the perpetrator (if and when possible), securing the scene, and preserving evidence. A typical hazmat unit is very seldom prepared or equipped to carry out any of these tasks.

A typical scenario that might be faced: Smoke and poisonous gas bellow out from a crowded shopping mall as patrons mass-exit into the streets. Local police and fire departments respond to the scene in an effort to neutralize the situation – only to learn that an undetermined number of men are inside, some of them armed with guns, and others strapped with bombs and/or quick-release gas canisters containing an unknown but presumably lethal type of powder. Police learn that the men inside also have several hostages with them.

Traditionally, the first responders responding to this scenario would be patrol officers and firemen. However, faced with the realization that armed men are concealed within a shopping mall, holding an unknown number of hostages as well as an unidentified biological weapon, timing is obviously of the essence. Whether law enforcement is faced with a lone-wolf scenario in a shopping mall or a credible attack from al Qaeda operatives possessing WMDs, rapid response and deliberately violent action from a prepared and well trained tactical team can make all the difference between a mass-casualty outcome and a safely contained scene.

Too Many Complications, Not Enough Time

In accordance with Presidential Decision Directive 39, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the lead federal agency assigned to coordinate all aspects of the federal response to a WMD incident. Each of the FBI’s 56 field offices is assigned a WMD coordinator – who has established relationships with his or her regional, state, and local counterparts. Should an incident happen – or even a reasonable suspicion of an incident happening – it would be the WMD coordinator’s responsibility to find out what exactly is going on, with the information provided, in most cases, via radio or other communications with his or her counterparts.

After the communications connection has been established, the coordinator alerts the WMD Directorate at FBI headquarters about the incident and a conference call is arranged between the local field office and the senior-level decision makers at FBI headquarters. It is then determined what federal resources, if any, should be deployed to the scene of the incident.

Timing is critical when one is talking about the spread of contamination and/or containment of the incident scene. In the wake of new intelligence, the time it takes to coordinate a response from an FBI field office to FBI headquarters and back is frequently not acceptable. “Rapid deployment” means precisely that: rapid deployment. There simply would not be enough time, in many plausible scenarios, to discuss and debate various options through the chain of command and/or determine who should make the key decisions when the immediate concern is containing the WMD scene itself. In other words, in many if not quite all situations the most important as well as immediate objective is neutralizing and containing the threat as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

The Capabilities and Responsibilities of Local & State Agencies

Local and state agencies also do not have time to linger when responding and neutralizing the scene. It is crucial, therefore, that they also be prepared to secure the scene – even prior to the federal government’s response.

Local and state resources obviously should work in close cooperation with federal agencies, though, particularly on such important matters as responding to and containing a WMD incident. Another factor to consider is that federal agencies simply do not have the luxury of rapid-response capability that local and state agencies (already on or closer to the scene) usually possess. Moreover, there is no doubt that the fallout effects of a WMD event will almost always overwhelm local resources – for at least three reasons: (a) the massive number of casualties likely; (b) the nature of those casualties; and (c) the decontamination efforts needed. However, by combining resources through properly coordinated efforts an efficient and usually acceptable end result can be effectively achieved.

In their efforts to prepare for a WMD attack many members of tactical units across the globe have been training for that unfortunate day that they hope never comes. It is training, moreover – repeated, thorough, and effective training – for a WMD catastrophe that is the most crucial aspect of a truly effective response. An additional major problem, though, is that most tactical teams are currently outfitted with obsolescent military equipment, possess inadequate levels of protection, and are limited to only a few days a year in which to train and prepare for a WMD attack. (In contrast, sports franchises do not expect the professional athletes who work and play for them to train for only a few days a year and then perform without mistakes.)

The bottom line is that tactical officers and other responders should not be expected to don their protective equipment for only a few days each year in order to respond, quickly and effectively, to a life-threatening WMD incident that might not only result in mass casualties but also cause the destruction of critical infrastructure. Proper training not only allows these officers the ability, and opportunity, to adjust in and adapt to a toxic environment, but also enables them to make educated decisions based on the hard-earned experience developed in training.

Protecting the Protectors: A Few Guidelines

Respiratory protection is probably the single most important piece of chemical-agent equipment needed by most SWAT officers. It is as important as the weapons they are carrying and/or the Kevlar vests they are wearing. Operators should be outfitted with PPE (personal protective equipment) that meets OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards and still allows the operator to be fully functional – without compromising his or her stealth movement. One of the greatest complaints voiced by many operators is that PPE slows down movement, and for that reason the effectiveness of some operators deteriorates after three hours or so of operation, and their judgment is sometimes impeded as well.

Ideally, therefore: (1) PPE should be so carefully designed and fitted that it enables the operator to deploy immediately without wasting too much time getting dressed; (2) PPE also should be “comprehensive” in the sense that it allows the wearer to be protected from all toxic agents – whether chemical, biological, or radioactive; and (3) The PPE worn should complement rather than impede the other equipment that operators will initially be wearing.

To briefly summarize: SWAT or tactical officers are called to the scene not only to mitigate a threat but also to contain, preserve, and secure the incident scene. No matter where the threat comes from, foreign or domestic, each team must face its own set of unique circumstances and, usually, possess at least the minimal abilities needed to equalize the situation. It is therefore increasingly important to understand, particularly in an era when the highest threat level in U.S. history is a frequent occurrence, that the nation: (a) equip and outfit its most critical resources – the first responders themselves – with the best possible training and equipment available; and (b) give them the time needed to train both thoroughly and effectively. Moreover, during a period when it seems entirely possible that more terrorism-related cases may well be tried in civil court, it becomes even more important for responses to be carried out with tactical officers factored into the equation.

For additional information on the Commission study mentioned above, refer to: The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, 2010.

Richard Schoeberl has over 15 years of counterintelligence, terrorism, and security management experience, most of it gleaned from his career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where his duties ranged from service as a field agent to leadership responsibilities in executive positions both at FBI Headquarters and at the National Counterterrorism Center. During most of his FBI career he served in the Bureau’s Counterterrorism Division, providing oversight to the FBI’s international counterterrorism effort.