Playing Well With Others

When you call for backup, do you sometimes get an officer from another agency? Do you ever respond to calls that also involve the fire department or EMS? Have you ever assisted a probation or parole officer with taking a client into custody? Have you ever turned a prisoner over to a corrections officer at the jail? If you answered "no" to all of these, you can stop reading right now (and explain to your chief why you have been sleeping on duty). If you answered "yes" to one or more, here's another question: do you and your colleagues from other agencies ever train together?

If you're like most of us, you probably don't. You may attend training courses with officers from other departments, and you may even have regional or county-wide in-service training, but I would bet that you don't really try to mesh policies, response tactics, and scene management protocols even with other law enforcement agencies, much less fire and EMS. And whoever heard of training with probation officers?

The events of 9-11 made us painfully aware of our inability to communicate with one another--the crazy-quilt of incompatible radio frequencies and different 10-codes led to a push for "interoperability" and mandated training in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). But plain-English radio traffic and a common vocabulary are just the beginnings of working smoothly together. National security concerns about terrorist attacks may be the motivator, but joint training exercises will yield tangible benefits every day on the street. Too often, we find ourselves working at cross purposes with other agencies or--worse--fighting over turf. Training together will help us recognize each other's strengths and better understand our different missions. In fact, cross-training in the emergency services may well be the wave of the future. I know of at least one city in which emergency services have been combined, with employees having multiple certifications as law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics.

One of the best ways to do joint training is to develop scenario-based exercises. These need not be huge, elaborate "disaster drills" that involve a cast of thousands. In fact, it's a good idea to start small. Why not team up with the fire station in your precinct to do a couple of scene management drills? For example, you could combine traffic crash investigation, first responder/EMS, and (for the firefighters) stabilization and extrication. Get the local salvage yard to drop a junked vehicle off at the training site and roll it on its side. VoilĂ ! It's a rollover with the occupant pinned inside. Officers responding have to call in the situation, protect the scene, manage traffic, control and interview witnesses--and resist the impulse to climb into the unstable car. Firefighters have to stabilize the vehicle, render first aid to the victim, and begin extrication procedures. EMS will have to package the "patient" (a dummy placed in the vehicle or a volunteer outside the vehicle) for transport and provide any additional treatment. Officers can then complete their investigation and fill out the paperwork.

For something even simpler, how about having law enforcement officers and probation/parole officers train together on taking a subject into custody? Participants can take turns being the subject who is "on paper." Police and probation/parole officers can practice verbal skills, handcuffing skills, and review the legal ramifications of police assists to probation/parole. (You may need to provide some instruction in proper handcuffing technique. A friend of mine who worked as a probation officer was issued handcuffs but was given no instruction whatever in how to use them. He didn't realize that if they close empty you don't need to use the key to open them--they just ratchet through. He tried to carry them open in his pocket so they'd be ready to use!)

If you do joint training, you will find that it can be very useful--and very revealing. Different groups have different strengths. For example, in my experience, law enforcement officers have better people skills and are better teachers than firefighters. After all, officers have to deal with people all day, every day. Firefighters deal mostly with equipment. But firefighters are vastly better at organizing and coordinating a team effort and managing complex scenes. Cops spend most of their time operating solo or in pairs; firefighters almost never do.

To make joint training work well, you need to spend time upfront planning and time afterward reviewing how things went. Three keys to a successful exercise are

  • Joint planning
  • Joint supervision
  • Separate and joint after-action review

Joint Planning

If you are planning a joint training with, say, EMS, first find out who your counterpart is in the EMS training unit. Call him or her up and suggest an informal meeting over coffee. See if there is any interest in doing some joint training. If there is, explore the kinds of training you see as being needed in both agencies. You may find that your varied perspectives will make it easier to see training "holes." Identify some common goals and figure out specific objectives for each agency. Then build a scenario around those goals and objectives. For example, let's say you decide that the police need more work on rendering first aid to injured crime victims and that the EMS providers need work on how to treat patients without messing up crime scenes unnecessarily. Any number of scenarios could be built around those goals: a domestic battery, a convenience-store armed robbery involving an attack on the clerk, or a sexual assault, to name a few.

Be sure to identify specific training objectives for both agencies, and tie them into agency training curricula. Then develop the scenario. Always start with the goals and objectives, then build the scenario to fit. Work to put together a joint training proposal that explains the value of the training for both agencies and clearly identifies the responsibilities of each agency in organizing and executing the training. Joint training may require more complicated and formal layers of approval than internal training.

Joint Supervision

Remember those unfortunate turf wars I mentioned earlier? Don't let your training exercise become a battleground. Be sure everyone understands the roles members of each agency are to play, then use the Incident Command System (ICS) on training day. If you are scratching your head trying to remember what ICS is, there's an opportunity to learn something from the hose jockeys--the fire service has been using ICS for years. Use of ICS is mandated under the National Incident Management System, but law enforcement agencies have often lagged behind in learning and using it on a daily basis, in part because most law enforcement calls are routinely handled by one or two officers. If it's only you and your partner, you don't really need to designate an Incident Commander. And NIMS training can be some of the dullest, most tedious classroom training imaginable. You know it's going to be a challenge when the federal government's own online training program acknowledges the need to include a hypertext glossary of acronyms!

Joint operations, however, are exactly where ICS excels, because the command structure depends on function, not rank. You don't need to try to figure out if a Precinct Captain outranks a Battalion Chief or vice versa--the chain of command flows from the standard roles and responsibilities involved in managing the incident. Be sure that the overall Incident Command for the training day includes a representative from each agency involved ("unified command" in ICS jargon). You don't want conflicting orders confusing things, nor do you want participants to be able to "shop" for a supervisor who will give the answer they want.

Separate and Joint After-Action Review

A critical part of making joint training useful is conducting an after-action review to identify what went well, what didn't go so well, and what could be done differently in the future. It's a good idea when you're doing joint training to have each agency debrief separately first, and then come together to look at the incident jointly. No one likes to air their dirty laundry in public. Let each participating agency figure out their own screw-ups first. It's a lot less painful to volunteer your own shortcomings to the group rather than have them pointed out by others. The longstanding friendly rivalries between different agencies and sectors in emergency services reflect deep pride. Offering an opportunity first for separate debriefing helps minimize bruised egos and facilitates later problem-solving.

Don't stop with the separate debriefing--it's equally important to look at the exercise together. Part of what make it possible for members of different agencies to work together seamlessly is understanding each other's point of view. You won't get that perspective unless you also review the training jointly. You may be surprised by what you learn when you see your own actions through the eyes of others. You may even find that looking at the training together will generate creative solutions to long-standing areas of friction.

Joint training exercises have another benefit as well. Next time you work with a firefighter or paramedic at an emergency scene or provide protection for a parole agent conducting an unannounced search of a client's residence, you'll have a link through common experience, making things go a little smoother. Who knows? It might work so well you expand the idea of joint training to civilian agencies such as Child Protective Services or the local Mental Health Crisis Team. Joint training--especially scenario-based training--takes effort to put together, but it can result in less frustration for the cop on the job and better service for our communities.