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Securing Unusual Scenes

Written by Joe Petrocelli

A small plane crashes. A tractor-trailer leaks an unknown gas or liquid. A train de-rails. Unfortunately, an officer can never be trained for every single eventuality that may arise in a 25-year career. Unusual and once-in-a-lifetime events can occur anytime. No matter who is ultimately responsible for clearing the scene, it is likely a patrol officer will be the first on the scene.

Unusual occurrences frequently require a response from several different agencies other than police agencies. It is the responsibility of the initial officer to assess the scene, check on victims, advise communications of required resources, identify witnesses and make the scene safe pending the arrival of mitigating agencies.

Arrival at an unusual scene can be overwhelming to the initial officer. There is no way of telling how many victims will be present, what means of conveyance may be involved, what hazardous materials may be present or what condition presents the greatest threat. No matter what the circumstances are, the initial officer should have a structured response.

Prior to approaching the scene the officer must conduct a scene assessment. Prior to exiting the unit the officer should advise headquarters of the location of the incident, any known victims, other apparatus needed, best direction of approach and any other pertinent information. Advise any responding assisting officers of any known threats.

In a case of a hazardous material spill, the officer should attempt to locate any warning placards (the absence of placards does not mean the scene is necessarily free of hazardous materials). In the case of a fire, the officer should note the color of the smoke.

In the case of an unknown or hazardous material the officer should not touch the substance or inhale fumes from the substance. The officer should listen for a whistling noise, which indicates contents are escaping under pressure. This may be the precursor to an explosion. Most of all, officers should not be smoking.

The unit should be parked at a safe distance from the scene; this distance should be determined by prevailing conditions including the type of threat, access to the threat and the chances of the threat spreading (in case of incidents like a fire, hazardous material exposure, or gas leaks).

Atmospheric conditions such as wind speed and direction as well as rain should be considered. The unit should be positioned in a manner that will deter non-emergency personnel from entering the scene but allows access for emergency personnel.

Prior to entering the scene the officer must determine if he has the proper training and equipment to enter the scene safely. Hazardous materials, fires, gas leaks, and confined spaces require a response from officers with specialized training in protective gear. If the initial officer does not have the appropriate equipment, entry should be delayed until the proper equipment arrives.

If entry is determined to be safe, the officer must immediately assess all victims for the presence of life threatening injuries. If a life threatening injury is present, it must be attended to first.

In the absence of life threatening injury, the officer must prioritize the threats and advise headquarters of required resources. The officer should consider (in order) :1) the protection of human life- this may include re-routing of traffic, setting up a perimeter or evacuation; 2) equipment needed to contain the threat—like fire apparatus and public service personnel, and; 3) protection of the scene as a possible crime scene—this also includes contacting the main investigating agency. In the case of a plane crash, the Federal Aviation Administration will be involved, and in case of a fire the Arson Squad will be involved. Officers should also consider: 4) protection of property—this may include contacting vehicle owners to move their cars or contacting surrounding store owners.

The officer should locate the greatest threat and set up a physical barricade around that threat, preventing non-emergency personnel from entering the scene. The barricade must be flexible enough to allow the entry of emergency personnel.

Once the scene is secure and the appropriate emergency personnel responds, the officer should monitor the threat and advise headquarters of any change in status. The officer should be positioned uphill and upwind of the threat, if possible. The officer’s main responsibility now is to keep the scene clear and await the arrival of personnel who will mitigate the threat.

If possible the officer should identify possible witnesses. Witnesses should be identified and separated pending the arrival of the primary investigating officer.

Many times at these scenes, the officers wish more could be done. The officer must understand the limitations of his training and the equipment available. Once the scene has been secured, the officer must maintain the perimeter and await the properly trained and equipped personnel.

Detective Joseph Petrocelli has been in law enforcement for 18 years and currently serves as the training coordinator for the Passaic County, NJ Sheriff’s Department. He is the co-author of Anatomy of a Motor Vehicle Stop.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2005

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