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Police Armored Rescue Vehicles: Tactical Rescue Considerations

Central to the mission for all SWAT teams is rescuing pinned down, injured persons—civilian and police alike—under hostile gunfire. This worst-case scenario is a prime reason for SWAT’s existence. Unfortunately, worst-case is precisely what occurred in two of the biggest law enforcement shootouts in recent U.S. history.

The 1993 ATF-Branch Davidian raid and shootout near Waco, TX resulted in multiple ATF casualties—four killed, 16 wounded, with an unknown number of Branch Davidian casualties. Only a negotiated “truce” prevented further loss of life.

The 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery / shootout between officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and two heavily armed, armor-protected robbers resulted in 11 officers wounded and both robbers killed. Both Waco and North Hollywood stand out among the fiercest police firefights in modern times, but they are only two of many shootouts where police or civilians needed to be rescued.

Earlier, the 1966 University of Texas Tower sniping incident was the catalyst for LAPD to form the nation’s first SWAT team. The 1973 New Orleans Howard Johnson sniper was one of the first nationally televised, live police shootouts, followed in 1974 by the more famous LAPD SWAT / Symbionese Liberation Army shootout.

Crisis situations that include active shooters, barricaded subjects, and hostage takers are now occurring with alarming frequency. As SWAT has evolved over the past 40 years, so have rescues under fire.

Today there are four essential ingredients to successful rescues under fire: 1) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), 2) Armored rescue vehicles (ARVs), 3) Tactical Emergency Medical Service (TEMS), and 4) Emergency Medical Service (EMS).

The above combination of essential ingredients is the most effective, appropriate and expedient rescue under fire system to date. It is a system that’s still evolving—one that has its roots in military combat medicine.

Modern day, key pioneers in tactical medicine are former United States Surgeon General Vice Admiral Richard Carmona, M.D., and Captain Frank Butler, M.D., a U.S. Special Operations Command surgeon. Military medics, indispensable and integral to all military operations, have accompanied troops into combat in numerous wars, saving countless lives in the process. U.S. Army and Navy medics are taught to use various firearms because enemies have often targeted medics and the wounded, ignoring the generally accepted codes of conventional warfare.

Civilian tactical medic concepts mirror those of our military. While many medics are not armed, most are trained in weapons should there be a need.

The three goals of tactical combat casualty care (TCCC) are to treat the casualties (police, citizen or bad guy), prevent additional casualties, and complete the mission. Unfortunately in the case of SWAT teams, when a tactical team takes a hit from the bad guys, more than one team member is often wounded and needs to be rescued.

Conventional Rescue Tactics and the Use of ARVs

There are pitfalls associated with conventional ballistic shield rescue tactics as taught nationwide. Some of these include: 1) Difficulty in performing individual tasks behind cumbersome shields; 2) May be ineffective in most tactical situations; 3) Increased risk to both rescuer and victim; 4) May prevent shielding from fire by using natural or artificial obstacles; 5) Can be cumbersome and ineffective for the rescuer and/or victim to return fire; 6) Excessive target zone exposure (methodical); 7) Slow sequence rescues may fail to re-establish initiative, and 8) Operations are manpower intensive.

Among the modern casualty extraction techniques medics are now being taught are drags and carries, including the use of drag SKEDs, Save-A-Jakes, and a dragging-rescue devices worn by tactical team members and uniformed patrol officers.

The Save-A-Jake is a multipurpose rescue tool consisting of a harness system with a strap and two handles that can be utilized for dragging. By using this or a drag strap (Staylo), the ground is in effect, the dragging platform. This leads to less chance of spinal injury to the rescued person because there is better spinal motion restriction than when the body is carried. However, often the most efficient way to move a patient to cover is simply to grab an arm or leg and drag him.

In neighborhoods where respect for the law is thin and bad guys think that they can deal with any responding police, the appearance and intervention of a no-nonsense police armored rescue vehicle (ARV) can make them reconsider. Most law enforcement agencies have experienced incidents where bad guys surrender without further resistance when the ARV arrives. If part of the mission is medical evacuation of the wounded, sick, or injured, then the arrival of the vehicle has expedited the rescue and medical care.

A basic medical evacuation tactic is to position the ARV between the armed bad guys and the wounded person. Then the wounded are loaded into the ARV. Buildings and terrain features can be utilized by the ARV’s driver to provide addition cover. In other situations ARVs can be used for observation, gaining entry into barricaded buildings, and protecting the team. Kevlar skirts can be placed onto hooks on the exterior of an ARV prior to deploying it into rescue situations. These skirts are optional ARV protective equipment rather than an integral part of ARV rescues; they hang to the ground to prevent ricochets.

Once the casualties are loaded into the ARV and a decision has been made for it to transport the casualties to a secured, soft skin ambulance or medical facility, law enforcement personnel should be given the word that it is leaving. The reason? The arrival of an ARV is a law enforcement morale builder, and its departure can be a letdown. The size of the ARV rescue crew will vary depending on the situation, and it is often accompanied by a rescue team on foot using the ARV as cover.

Rescue tactics first need to be developed, and then repeatedly trained. A good way to do this is to incorporate the ARV into SWAT training on a regular basis.

The training should include rescues, evacuations with or without officers on foot, shooting and deploying chemical / less-lethal munitions from the ARV, etc. When it comes to SWAT tactics, one size does not fit all. While basic tactics are similar, every team has its own unique signature. ARV Rescue / Medevac tactics are no exception. However, these latter rescue tactics have the added variables of ARV capabilities and limitations, and the level of training and experience of the SWAT teams employing ARVs.

Armored Rescue Vehicles in Action

ARVs were introduced in the 1960s in response to major urban rioting that swept across America. However, after the riot era subsided, only a handful of ARVs remained in existence.

Then in the 1980s, military surplus Peacekeepers were made available to law enforcement. After Sept. 11, 2001, ARVs were specially designed for law enforcement and often obtained through Department of Homeland Security grants.

1968, Cleveland, OH—Cleveland’s deadliest incident, the Glenville Shootout and Riots, gave birth to Cleveland Police’s ARV and rescue medevacs.

“Glenville” began when police on surveillance of a militant location were attacked by 20 to 25 heavily armed militants. As police responded from throughout the city, a fierce gun battle spread over a several-block area. Police were outgunned and without portable radios, body armor, or sufficient extra ammunition. The result: four police officers, a civilian helping police, and three militants were killed; another dozen police were wounded. The shootout sparked four days of massive rioting.

Police initially commandeered seven Brinks armored trucks. By the time they arrived, the first shootout had subsided. However, the Brinks trucks proved their worth when they were pressed into riot duty.

Learning valuable lessons from “Glenville,” Cleveland PD formed and trained a tactical unit, whose centerpiece was an armored command post nicknamed “Mother.” One forward-thinking tactical sergeant created special rescue / medevac tactics for Mother. These tactics paid off during the 1974 East Cleveland Shootout against three militants armed with scoped rifles and holding a family hostage. Although five police officers and one hostage were wounded by gunfire, there were no deaths thanks to “Mother” and the tac unit.

In 1978, after a series of changes, the tactical unit evolved into the present-day CPD SWAT unit which inherited Mother. They re-designated her exclusively as an ARV.

Rescue Tactics—Cleveland SWAT’s ARV Rescue medevac tactics / techniques are smooth, simple, direct, and most important, effective. Its guiding principle is to position the ARV as a shield between the victims and suspects whenever possible. This is followed by providing cover with long guns and, when appropriate, also with chemical, smoke, and less-lethal munitions.

The ARV rescue team is divided into two components, one inside and one alongside the ARV. Both teams work in coordinated fashion, providing 360-degree coverage / protection for both rescuers and victims. Ballistic shields are employed.

Cleveland’s second and latest ARV, Mother-2, is custom built with four-wheel drive. It has substantial (classified) ballistic armor, multiple gun ports, and extended hydraulic boom, with more than enough room for a working crew. Cleveland SWAT uses a lightweight, durable backboard with handles and straps for rescues. Using the ARV and ballistic shields as cover—along with multiple cover officers inside and alongside the ARV—designated rescuers strap the victim securely onto the backboard and evacuate him into the ARV. Then, providing interim emergency medical care, they transport the victim to waiting EMS personnel and ambulances. Recently, full-time EMS/fire paramedics have been added to Cleveland’s SWAT team in a move that will certainly enhance CPD SWAT’s TEMS capabilities.

Depending on the incident, Cleveland often prefers to immediately interject Mother 2 into the situation, providing protection and cover. Often this results in diverting the suspects’ attention away from victims; they will cease shooting and even surrender to the ARV.

If suspects continue shooting, ARVs make far safer “targets” than officers in the open or using makeshift cover. Plus, ARVs can also shoot back. The emergence of TEMS in SWAT needs to be incorporated into all phases of tactics and training, including ARV rescues.

Pinellas County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office—The worst-case scenario for deputies and officers is probably an armed hostage taker in a fortified structure in a chemical environment. To take command in this situation, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team has a pressurized GPV (general purpose vehicle) that it can clear contaminated air inside it within three seconds.

Theirs is a very large, street legal, fully armored GVP Sergeant 4x4, with a Caterpillar C7 turbo diesel engine and 10 weapons ports. It is air conditioned, has space for water and food storage, an intercom, and a rear camera. The vehicle can hold 10 fully equipped operators plus two (including the driver) in front.

In the short time the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office owned the GPV, the sheriff’s office has not needed it for ARV-assisted rescues. However, when it was used on a callout, one suspect came out and surrendered upon seeing it approach, and during a second callout, the suspect jumped from a second story window. In another incident, the vehicle was used to safely end a standoff with an armed man along a narrow causeway filled with beach goers.

Does the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office train to use its ARVs in rescues? Yes. According to SWAT team coordinator Lieutenant Sean Jowell, both SWAT deputies and patrol deputies train for officer down rescues. Uniformed deputies have one Peacekeeper ARV stationed in the northern county and another stationed in the southern county for use in situations where it would take time for SWAT to assemble and respond with the GPV.

Sheriff’s Office SWAT trainers make sure the deputies do not build up a false sense of security concerning the uses of ARVs. They train to know what the vehicles can and cannot accomplish. Patrol deputies are all trained to make rescues and to get either patrol ARVs or the SWAT GPV on location in a timely fashion. They are also trained to form a rescue element and are familiarized with the use of ballistic shields in a rescue. Ballistic shields are readily available, as they are assigned to each patrol supervisor’s vehicle.

PCSO SWAT team has 12 fully trained tactical medics, who are also members of the local ambulance service and five fire districts. These tactical medics meet the same physical standards as the sheriff’s SWAT deputies. They attend and participate in all SWAT training so they can operate as one unit, and their team leaders attend all SWAT team leader meetings. Tactical medics also attend all tactical operations and each has gone through a 90-hour basic SWAT school. All are operationally trained in entering and exiting the GPV.

Although the tactical medics are trained to be familiar with the firearms that SWAT operators carry, the medics are unarmed. Their uniforms are the same as SWAT except for the word MEDIC on their sleeves. These tactical medics, while familiar with SWAT tactics and protocols, are always positioned on the perimeter; they are not part of the entry team. If medics are called in, they are escorted by an armed SWAT deputy.

There is a lot of communication between the SWAT team and the tactical medics; when they are called up, they arrive at the designated staging location and deploy with the team. The commander of the tactical medics is Jowell’s counterpart. SWAT training scheduling with the tactical medics as part of the team is rarely a problem.

A prime example of the necessity of training as a single team resulted in a major discovery during scenario training. In that scenario, the single tactical medic and one SWAT deputy were wounded in a firefight. This forced the other SWAT deputies to tend to the wounded using the medical kit all tactical medics carry. The deputies, via radio, were talked through the lifesaving procedures by another tactical medic located at the command post. Each medical bag is setup exactly the same, but the lesson learned was that SWAT operators were not at all familiar with the contents and use of medical equipment. This has changed as each year SWAT operators take a refresher course with the medics.

Normally, medics set up their medical bags based upon the individual’s perceived needs and experiences. These contain items such as hemeostatic powder to control moderate to severe bleeding, Asherman Chest Seals, a Bag Valve Mask, blind insertion airway devices, an endotracheal tube and endotracheal tube holder, sterile moisture burn sheets, and other items with which a deputy might not be familiar.

According to Jowell, next to tactical personnel, the GPV is the most important functioning tool assigned to the team.

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. He can be reached at

Mickey Davis is a Florida-based writer and author. She can be reached at

Robert O’Brien retired from the Cleveland, OH PD as a senior sergeant and senior SWAT sergeant. He is one of the founders of the full-time CPD SWAT unit. He currently lives in California consulting and advising SWAT teams.

Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2009

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