How To Overcome Target Location Labeling Problems in Prolonged Incidents

June 18, 2019
Not all buildings are boxes, count for irregularities in your operational plan to avoid miscommunication and officer confusion.

Most officers get taught how to label a building in setting up a perimeter in basic academy. The structure described is usually four-sided, a single story with doors and windows. For that very reason, virtually every SWAT team in the nation trains members in target building labeling for reference. Teams have determined the most common types of buildings in their areas and the most common types of target buildings they respond to or serve high risk warrants in. These don’t have to be the same thing. New York City may be full of high-rises but their emergency services teams usually don’t have to train to take an entire building but typically handling a single floor and expanding operations coverage to one or two floors above and below the target.

Where building labeling becomes a challenge is when it’s irregularly shaped and has floors below ground on one side but above ground on other sides.

As above, so below

When you’re trained to label sides, windows and doors, what level they are on is often minimally discussed. As a result, many rookies assume that the first floor is floor one, the second floor is floor two and so on. That quickly falls apart when you’re dealing with, for example, a condominium structure with one or more levels below street level. The ground floor, what would be the first floor from the front entrance view, might be the second or third level from the back parking lot. Such a challenge isn’t apparent until officers on the perimeter start discussing the fourth floor while only three are visible from the front.

In general, for structures under ten stories tall—from the front entrance level or street level—you label the levels from the top down. That means that the highest floor in the building is level one, numbering down from there. Depending on the structure and terrain, you might have ten levels from that front entrance street view, but 11, 12 or even 13 from the sides or back. For structures over ten stories tall—as counted from the street level front entrance—it’s probably best to use the labeling you can find on the elevator panel.

Residential structures can be very different from commercial and office buildings. What you can see from the front, sides or rear may not be all there is. Account for below ground somewhere in your operational plan. You could have a three story shopping mall with two levels of parking, both below ground. If you have team members having to clear that structure or set up a secure perimeter on entrances, then they are probably entering on level three.

Building shapes

U-shaped, L-shaped, and other oddly-shaped buildings present challenges for labeling sides. In general, numbers are most often used with letters being used to designate openings. On a two-story house, the front would be “side one” counting clockwise around the house for side two, three (the back of the house) and four. The corners then can be designated by indicating which sides meet at that corner, e.g. corner 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, and 1-4. When you have a structure with only four sides, it takes two officers to set up a perimeter with one officer at each of two opposing corners. The officer at 1-4 can see the front and one side while another at 2-3 can see the back and the other side of the building.

Where that becomes a challenge is with the U- or L-shaped building. If the perimeter officers are relatively close to the building, then it takes more than two for full visual coverage and two of them will be viewing the same side(s). There’s nothing wrong with that. If you back the officers off from the building, then you can still cover all sides with two officers but they may be outside engagement distance for suspects or subjects exiting the building.

Openings on a side are usually labeled left to right but some agencies choose to also label them clockwise. This can get confusing for officers who don’t practice, who are not on special teams, or from different agencies. Clear communications of data gathered is vital to an efficient and safe response. For that reason it’s important that your agency’s building labeling protocol be published and trained beyond the basic academy level. Since so many agencies don’t usually train this as part of in-service, most SWAT teams do and they cross-train with allied agencies they might have to respond with or support.

Probably the best news about training for labeling a building is that it can be done virtually. Often overlooked as a means of “getting a booster shot” for training, using simulation training like what companies like VirTra makes available can increase the trainee’s knowledge base and reinforce what was learned. Depending on how it’s administered, it also has a minimal manpower-per-session cost and can be used for everything from specific topic training to more generic continuing education or in-service training.

It doesn’t take long for people listening on scanners to figure out what you’re referring to based on your radio transmissions and language. Special team members using encrypted comms don’t have that concern but virtually every other officer on your agency does. It has to be assumed that suspects inside your target structure and all members of the media understand what you’re talking about. This can give away the positioning of your officers and tell those listening the location of the action.

Download the full 2019 Active Shooter Response Supplement at

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