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Fighting Through the Smoke

Written by Tom Wetzel

One of the byproducts of a flash-bang going off or a pyrotechnic CN or CS grenade after dispersal may be impaired vision for the officer. Whether it’s smoke from the flash-bang or a fog cloud from the chemical agents, the officer may experience a few moments in which he doesn’t have a clear picture of what he is facing. This could be stressful if the officer just made a room entry with a SWAT team or is trying to control an angry crowd.

It may be difficult to see exactly what is near you. This is especially true if you are about to engage a hostile subject with pending action that may require immediate physical control measures or deadly force. And the dynamics of the encounter may allow only split seconds to make a decision that could protect you or save a life.

Having a strategy and some prior training for these conditions may go a long way toward achieving a successful outcome for your objective. Practice in these conditions, and have a flexible plan.

First, police officers should periodically train for smoke/fog-like conditions. Performing exercises in these types of environments provides opportunities to learn what works best. The movements and actions an officer or team takes will depend on the mission and may require adjustments as a result of visibility and threat level.

Based on the circumstances, officers may decide to look for cover positions or close the gap on a subject. A decision may be made to pause to allow chemical agents to disperse further. If positions of cover have been obtained, officers may opt for gaining control through voice commands.

Training in smoke or fog type conditions should include exercises that involve movement (single and team), defensive tactics, less-lethal deployment and firearms training. The use of gas masks should be incorporated as well, as officers are likely to be wearing them when gas or smoke is deployed in crowd-control incidents. Also, an officer may experience reduced visibility through temporary fogging of the eye pieces inside his mask.

The value for officers is gained in the exposure to these conditions, working in them, and having or developing a strategy while under their effects. This may also help prevent panic if exposed to conditions where they can’t immediately see what is in front of them.
Training Equipment

Equipment for this training is inexpensive. It could involve the use of cheap, small, store-bought “smoke bombs” or expired department-issued smoke devices. Check the local fire department to borrow its smoke generator.

Another cost-effective solution exists. By taking a pair of range glasses or sunglasses with light-colored lenses, the trainer can rub dry or nearly dry soap on the lenses to a degree that could simulate light smoke conditions. Officers could wear these glasses for the exercises. Gas masks, if available, should be utilized as well. Training mats can also be part of the program.

Arrest Tactics in Smoke

Officers may have to apply control holds to resist subjects while smoke or fog conditions are present. In these same conditions, officers may also have to defend themselves from violent assaults or attempts against them. By setting up a light smoke environment through the use of actual smoke devices or training glasses, officers could practice control holds, self-defense techniques, sparring exercises and handcuffing and restraining subjects.

The training environment should generally only involve a light amount of smoke. The purpose is to limit the actual amount of smoke to which an officer is exposed. The program is intended to provide some diminished visibility for training purposes while still maintaining a level of safety for the officer, whose health could be affected by too much smoke. Unless training glasses are utilized, it is important to take advantage of outdoor environments or have fresh air easily accessible.

This is less of an issue when gas masks are used for this part of the program. Then the training can involve heavier applications of smoke. Although visibility is compromised, breathing won’t be affected by the smoke when masks are used. This doesn’t mean the breathing will be comfortable, as officers who wear masks while conducting training can attest. But it is important to practice defending yourself and controlling and cuffing subjects while in smoke/fog-like conditions and wearing a mask.

Range Training in Smoke

Use-of-force responses involving a firearm may occur during situations where an officer’s visibility is compromised due to smoke from flash-bangs or high concentrations of a chemical agent. By establishing smoke environments at outdoor or indoor ranges, officers can practice shooting exercises that include utilization of cover positions which may be tactically advantageous for the officers.

While officers work their way through these smoky conditions, emphasis should be placed on control of their weapons. It could be risky to have their handgun extended too far out, especially if visibility is reduced to just a few feet in front of them. The program should include a portion for the use of gas masks as well.

The training should also utilize group movements simulating crowd-control environments where officers work in lines or pre-set positions. Working together in this type of environment will develop confidence. SWAT team members should also practice team movements as these officers could make entries as a group into environments where smoke has compromised their visibility. Being in close proximity to each other will be helpful, but there may be periods where they lose sight of the officer in front of them. Practice can build the skill to traverse obstacles that a team member may encounter.

Training Makes the Difference

Although officers will generally not be working under smoke or fog-like conditions on a routine basis, it is useful to have some prior training for these types of environments. It can develop coordination and confidence and help prevent panic. Also, the training can be conducted at low cost by using soapfilmed glasses that simulate smoke conditions. What this training can do is help prepare an officer to “focus” on what he can barely see and react accordingly based on good judgment and tactics.

Tom Wetzel is a northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant, SWAT officer, trainer and certified law enforcement executive. He holds a black belt in Goshin Jujitsu. He can be reached at wetzelfamily05@sbcglobal.net.

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2010

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