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Critical Incident Checklists

Anyone who has ever attended one of my seminars knows what a big proponent of checklists I am.  Having learned to fly at a relatively young age it was hammered into my head that preflight preparation wasn’t done from rote memory, but with a checklist.  Doing something so important “routinely” could cause shortcuts that could lead to catastrophic results. 

I remember vividly running to the front of the hanger at Flagstaff’s Pulliam Field where my friends and I watched a “lowlander” with full tanks and passengers struggling to get airborne without doing a weight and balance check for an airport at 7,000 feet elevation.  As he “routinely” flew out of a sea level airport in California the pilot had developed the habit of not checking weight and balance for the density altitude he was at.

Fortunately, everyone survived the crash that followed but not without serious injury.  It was a powerful reinforcement for a young man’s brain to watch the agonizing slow rise of the aircraft thanks to “ground effect;” unfortunately lift was lost at the end of runway due to a drop-off in terrain.  The crash was not like television at all, but rather a dull “thunk!”  Believe me, I never failed to do my checklists again.  And if you are ever flying one of those little commuter aircraft and they ask you to move to balance the airplane … don’t make them ask twice!

I guess what has amazed me over the years is how few checklists we have in law enforcement.  We have high-risk threats all around us and a few simple checklists would be a marvelous antidote to the insidious effect that routine has on our performance.  Share this article at your next briefing, whatever your assignment, and ask your cohorts to come up with a simple safety checklist for a traffic stop, or a building search, or a buy/bust.  Then make copies of the list and, over the next week, see how many of the points that you collectively agreed to follow actually get followed.  I think you will see why checklists are so ubiquitous in medicine, aviation, industrial safety, and other high-risk professions; bad habits become quickly extinguished!

Ok, so routine activities in high-risk professions should be checked for bad habits, and checklists help.  I think we all agree, but what about high risk, rare events?  What about active shooter responses, mass casualty events, urban riots, or even what to do if you get shot?  These aren’t checklists that should be stored in the mobile command vehicle, or sitting on a Communications Supervisor’s desk.  They should be in every officer’s, deputy’s, and trooper’s citation book, clipboard, or notebook.  In the electronic era they can be generated, validated (by the ground troops) and disseminated easily.   Note that I indicated validation is essential, and not by some administrator or “expert” but by the troops where the rubber meets the road!  Too often we create rules, regs, standards, and expectations without doing a validation, and in a crisis a validated checklist can make all the difference in the world.

Let’s look at a checklist no one wants to think about, but one we need to have in our vehicle to get us in the right mindset all the time.  What do you do if you are wounded?  First, we need to reaffirm that the vast majority of officers who are shot survive!  Get rid of the “bang, bang, you are dead” mentality.  If you are shot (and many officers I have interviewed over the years only discovered they were in a gunfight because they were shot right off the bat), use it as a starting pistol for some major “whip ass!” and make sure you are the one doing the whipping.

In other words, the checklist for when you are shot starts with: (1) win!  It then goes on to: (2) make the scene safe for yourself, (3) call backup and support if they are not already en-route, (4) initiate self aid, (5) render aid to other officers and civilians, and finally (6) render aid to the Adam Henry! 

Some tell me they haven’t been trained in tactical medical skills and I ask them to simply imagine applying what they do know to themselves, and also learn to apply tourniquets and dressings to their own wounds.  If you sit down with a couple of EMT’s they can break it down by injury location and type for you.  Just doing this is a huge step in getting mentally prepared to win a gunfight.  Since you have already resolved what to do if you get hit it won’t become something you “worry” about; and worrying is another form of visualization … negative visualization!

Okay, so we have mundane day-to-day activities we can classify as “routine” that get us hurt and killed, as well as rare, critical, and intense activities that can get us hurt and killed; both are made more survivable if we will only get checklists!  So let’s do it.  The trouble is, many of you reading this say, “My agency won’t ever do this, and they don’t care, and yada yada yada.”  Fine, complain about it and then feel better; Maslow said griping was good for the soul – but it doesn’t make you safe and that is no one else’s job but yours.

Create your own routine and critical incident checklists, and – better yet – co-opt your warrior friends and do them as a group.  The simple act of creating a checklist refreshes the training you’ve had and helps combat the effects that routine has on your performance.  We all know routine kills; well, we can say just as certainly that checklists  combat routine, improve our performance, and simply make us safer!  Try it!

Reading list:  The Checklist Manifesto:  How to Get Things Right,   Atul Gawande