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2013 International Breachers Symposium

Written by Ron Yanor

While instructing at the U.S. Department of State Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program 13 years ago, Russ Hart and Alan Brosnan came up with an idea to expand the knowledge base of the breaching community. They reached out to their professional colleague, Steve Mattoon, and the first International Breachers Symposium was held at the Gunsite facility in 2000.

At that time, explosive breaching was still in its infancy with mainstream law enforcement, who saw this as primarily a military option. Fast forward to the current day and we see more agencies with this capability, due in large to the input of many of the seminars presented.

The Breachers Symposium is more than about just explosive entry. Over the intervening years, this event has grown to be a comprehensive exhibition on the full spectrum of forced entry options: mechanical, saws, torches, ballistic, explosives and robotics.

This year’s symposium was held in Lakeland, Fla. with Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County giving the welcoming address. As co-host, his agency played a substantial role in range preparation, conducted the majority of the breaching demonstrations, and handled a share of the daily logistics.

Under the direction of Lt. John Cook, commander of the Special Operations Group, the Polk County SWAT Team provided all the live-fire explosive breaching demonstrations over both range days as well as the opening scenario involving uniform patrol, snipers, aviation and hostage rescue assets.

Throughout its history, the two core lecture presentations on opening day have centered on justifying an explosive breaching program and sustainment education for teams with existing programs. Recent seminars featured presenters from the scientific community and medical profession with their input on the human effects of blast pressure, safe stacking distances, and reflected indexes of energetics.

At the 2011 event, we saw medical experts reporting on the burgeoning studies of what was termed ‘breacher brain’—the incidental and cumulative effects of explosive breaching on operators. The results are similar to Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI] and the complexities are becoming better understood.

This year, Black Box Biometrics and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders & Stroke presented lectures on the effects of internal explosive breaching charges and Noise Flash Distraction Devices (flash-bangs). A portion of their research covered the pressure effects on small rooms and larger structures with complex floor plans. It centered on not only the Incident Pressure, but also Reflected Pressure.

Reflected Pressure is described as the ‘reverb’ of shock waves bouncing of hard surfaces and colliding. At times, this coincidence of Reflected Pressure was greater deep inside a structure than at the point of deployment. This was especially important in small rooms, stairwells and hallways where pressures could reach danger levels. In all cases, venting [opening a door] played a significant role in reducing pressure to safer levels.

Related to this, one of the vendors displayed an electronic personal blast gauge meter. About the size of a small pager, the device features a red light display when pressures exceed safe levels. It also tracks long-term exposures.

Another major component of the symposium has always been the foreign country attendance and this year was no exception with 14 countries represented. The audience ranged from Tier 1 national assets to domestic municipal police officers. When queried why they made such an effort to travel so far, the overwhelming answer was networking. Two police officers from New Zealand said their main draw was, “the ability to talk directly with the main guys” along with “getting the latest information on science and safety.” 

This was the fourth year for one officer because as he put it, “You can’t come once and get it all.” A special operations soldier from Norway concurred with the importance of the networking aspect. He attributed his multi-year participation not only to the opportunity to talk directly with the vendors and establishing that relationship, but also interacting with fellow operators. He described the information sharing as, “Yeah we got that tool, but we found it works better if you use it like this.”

The 25 breaching product-specific vendors were cited by many participants as the main focal point. The ability to actually try products in the ‘trade show’ area of the conventions center was exceptionally beneficial. The vendor representatives were exceptionally well informed and willing to share information.

During breaks in between the range demonstration sessions, participants could do hands-on evaluations of various products under realistic applications. BROCO and Olsen-Hunter Group had exothermic torches set up with an assortment of steel media where participants could execute test cuts. Bill Nixon of Omni Distribution set up multiples of their fast-pack firing system to try out. 

The first range session began on day two at the Polk County’s expansive range complex with a vehicle pursuit of simulated hostage takers driving in front of the spectators’ bleachers with a patrol car behind and a helicopter overflight. The suspects and hostage flee on foot into a building façade with blank shots fired. The SWAT arrives and conducts explosive breaches on doors, windows and the roof. The roof team immediately fast ropes into the opening for the rescue. 

As a finale, a suspect flees the façade. A sniper fires from another building 200 yards behind, hitting a steel gong on an elevated platform. The hit triggers the simultaneous deployment of a huge American flag with gas distraction devices on either side—a truly impressive sight. For many in the crowd, this was their first exposure to roof breaching.

For the next several hours, the team rotated elements in a ‘rolling assault’ on the building façade. Each element demonstrated a different type of charge configuration on varying door compositions. As soon as an element of 4–6 operators returned to the safe area, the next group deployed. Down time was an absolute minimum with just enough time for announcer, Max Joseph, to brief the crowd on the next demonstration. During the break, the attendees were allowed a close-up inspection along with vendor product trials.

In the mean time new doors were hung for a second round of demonstrations that included ballistic breaching, commercial charges, and the use of robotics. The ability to remotely breach with a robot is a rapidly emerging technology for both energetics and other methods. The concept of effecting entry without placing operators directly at the entry point is officer safety based.

An idea refined by the New Zealand Police Special Tactics Group is a pole charge that allows an operator to place a conventional explosive charge on a door or window without exposing breachers at the entry point. A 6- to 10-foot stand-off keeps the persons placing and firing the charge at a protected distance. The apparatus is fabricated from common materials available at most home improvement stores. Despite its length, the setup is rather light and not overly unbalanced. There is no doubt this method will have a direct benefit when doors are inset on a landing from the adjacent wall.

One of the networking opportunities this year was the ability to interact with some of the ‘godfathers’ of SWAT. Steve Mattoon, a former U.S. Army Ranger with tours in Vietnam, has been heavily involved with civilian law enforcement for over 30 years. During our conversation, Steve made an interesting observation that during the 1970s and 1980s, it was rare to have a police administrator in a command post with any tactical experience.

There was an equal chance that the incident commander could reject a sound tactical plan or approve a flawed plan due to their lack of experience on this topic. Today, more high-ranking law enforcement officials have some tactical background and many have been in leadership positions on a team. This cannot help but lead to better informed decision makers during critical incidents.

Alan Brosnan came to the U.S. from the New Zealand SAS as a subject matter expert 24 years ago. In his extensive experience as a trainer, Alan has seen substantial changes with more commanders and team leaders attending the symposium and more interest from state and municipal law enforcement.

Part of his impetus for starting the symposium was at that time, there were conferences for other specialty groups such as canine handlers, negotiators or snipers, but nothing that directly addressed forced entry missions. He has always maintained that the best assaulters in the world can’t do any good if they could not get inside the stronghold.

A number of break-out sessions help complete each symposium highlighted with lessons learned from real-life operations. A couple of sessions were exclusively for military personnel, but others were open to all. All of the breakout sessions provided excellent take-home learning points and not all were breaching specific. One presentation dealt with PTSD consideration in law enforcement.

There were other tactical sessions, for example, a comparison of second-story window entry methods—what provided the climber with the least exposure to a shooter firing from a position above on the same building. Using a ladder allowed an operator to ascend closer to the wall, at a shallow angle, forcing a shooter to lean farther out of an upper window in order to engage.

Another session involved teams using armored vehicles. They should familiarize local fire and rescue units on details of that vehicle if extrications would ever be needed in case of crash, blast or rollover. Special Operations teams overseas have found that traditional rescue methods may not work on these types of specialty vehicles.

One session covered communications. On long-term incidents involving the rotation of multiple teams, radio interoperability has always been an issue. When explosive charges are used, the team coming on line needs to be thoroughly briefed on what charges have been built and the priming system. At the same time, common rules of engagement need to be set by the overall command authority. In the incident described, as a new team stood to engage, that team’s command determined what suspect actions would constitute an emergency assault. At times, these rules differed substantially.

During another long-term incident, the breachers surveyed an adjoining apartment for details on interior wall construction. They interpreted this data to the target location and built several port charges for several locations along an interior wall. However, the construction was not exactly the same. The 2x4 stud spacing was asymmetrical. A section of wall that was thought to be drywall construction turned out to be concrete block fire wall. The breachers involved said they should have better used the negotiations time to covertly probe the walls on the target for precise information.

Chief Deputy Macon Moore from DeSoto County, Miss. Sheriff provided a unique perspective from being a newly qualified explosive breacher in 1991 to be a ranking administrator in 2013 who now makes decisions on tactical operations and breaching options. Tucson, Ariz. Police Officer Jim Murray presented a briefing on his department’s use of robots to directly support forced entries, especially on high-risk missions.

This was the first year the newly formed International Breachers Group administered the symposium. This is a seven-person advisory board with expertise in tactics, training and scientific backgrounds. Along with that responsibility, the group plans to develop a secure website for information sharing within the breaching community. The information would include products and techniques. They want to grow to be an objective forum on not only what works, but what to avoid. It is anticipated they will make recommendations on best practices standards for breaching concerns.

What is the future of breaching? Well, according to Marc Morris of Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense, it’s “a progression away from the arts and crafts phase” into a “more mature period of engineered products.” This will lessen the liability concerns of everyone involved. Homeland Security may eventually expand grant expenditures to cover breaching equipment because of this. Marc has also seen a wider acceptance of explosive entry as a life-saving tool.

More immediately, look for the next International Breachers Symposium to be held at the TEES facility in the Memphis area, Nov. 2–6, 2014. Is it worth attending? When you consider personnel travel from as far away as Singapore to Poland to participate, and the symposium is all about liability reduction and increased effectiveness, the answer has to be yes.

Ron Yanor is retired after a 25-year law enforcement career. He spent 19 years on a 22-operator, multi-jurisdictional tactical unit, with nine years as the training and intel officer. Since 1999, he has been a contract trainer and currently operates Adamax Tactical Academy in Illinois. He is also on the staff of Tactical Energetic Entry Systems.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2014

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