A lot of the teaching I do, centers around, and focuses directly on, techniques that will be easier to perform under the body’s natural reactions to the stress present in a sudden life or death situation. Since none of us can be certain what circumstances we will have to confront, or what our exact reaction will be, we can only learn from previous incidents, and apply those lessons to our training time. In my law enforcement career, I’ve been very lucky to have seen first-hand how others react to serious situations, and apply those lessons to my own training. This has helped me greatly, and given me the ability to perform much better when I later had to go through similar stressful situations. Let me give you some examples of actual situations I have been able to learn from.

Make Like the “Kool-Aid Man”

Our team was going through a multi-day class to enhance our SWAT skills. It was training day six – on a Saturday, and we were doing building search exercises in a huge industrial building that was closed that weekend. The layout had business offices in the front, and open areas with catwalks, machinery, and large equipment in the shop/warehouse area in the back – a lot of options and some terrific training challenges.

There was a long hallway that went about forty feet between the office area and the warehouse. It was just an open hallway, about ten feet wide, with no doors along either side. We were at the office end, and for our scenario, needed to move through the hallway to the warehouse. It was essentially a death funnel. We knew there were bad guys at the end, and from the time we left the office end, there was no cover, or anywhere to go should the bad guys open up on us mid-way through.

Since we had no other option (like finding another way into the warehouse), our solution involved long cover from the office end of the hall, covering that distance quickly, and having as many options as possible when we reached the warehouse end and were likely to encounter bad guys. One officer was selected to take the lead down the hallway, a second was to follow, staying about ten feet behind him. The remainder of the team took the best positions they could at the office end of the hallway to provide cover fire if needed.

Now, this lead officer was under a lot of stress. Not as much as in an actual situation, but enough. His brain was pumping a variety of chemicals into his body. His pulse rate was increased, his blood pressure was elevated, he was breathing faster than normal, and his fine motor skills were somewhat deteriorated. Of course, as we all knew and expected would happen, when the lead officer got about thirty feet down the hallway, the bad guys rolled around the end of the hall and started shooting blanks.

Based on the discussions and plan we had made before starting the scenario, he essentially had three options: move forward to engage the bad guys and fight back, retreat as he returned fire, or drop down and make his profile smaller to allow those at the end of the hallway to take advantage of their solid shooting positions and return fire. Instead he did something quite different – we later called it “Freaking Out.” We actually had several stronger terms to describe his actions, but I won’t repeat that language here…

He was a big guy, worked out a lot – had the body of a guy who could lift a ton, but the brain of a guy who couldn’t spell it. When the blanks started going off he looked to either side of the hallway for somewhere to go, some place to get out of the way. Then, he took a running start and threw himself up against one side of the hallway. He had hit it with such force that he literally bounced off the wall. He then did the same thing again – this time, against the other side of the hallway. He was driving his body with such force the entire walls were shaking. He did this many times, ever after the scenario was halted – like a giant ping-pong ball bouncing between the two walls.

Of course the trainers who were serving as bad guys couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They stopped shooting the blanks, and stopped the scenario immediately. Even with the call to stop, the officer continued driving himself into the walls – trying to break through as he had seen in some TV show or movie – or in the Kool-Aid commercial when the giant pitcher crashes through the wall. The problem was these walls were not made of balsa wood and break-away materials – this was a commercial building with extra think sheetrock and thicker wall studs than you might find in a home or residential building.

His unusual reaction, and the plan he had formulated on the spot to break through a wall to escape, was not the kind of thing you would expect from a trained officer in a similar situation – however, you also may not be able to imagine what the effects of huge amounts of stress might cause you to do either.

Bang, Bang, Bang

We were doing a raid on a drug house, and because our intelligence indicated there were several “heavy hitters” in the house and the possibility of fully automatic weapons, we called the SWAT team to do the actual entry. Our narcotics team would act as support, covering their entry and immediately following as the house was cleared to secure the drugs. My assignment was to block traffic at the nearby intersection right before the team moved in and entered (with the possibility of shots being fired, we wanted to keep the area in front of the house clear of traffic). OK it wasn’t the most glamorous job – but someone had to do it…

The SWAT entry team used “Flash-Bangs” when they went in. These produce an extremely bright flash and a massive concussive blast. Your eyes, brain, and inner ear are all either liquid filled or floating in liquid. The concussive blast essentially causes a shock wave to flow through your body and head, and the force of this wave causes you to become disoriented and a bit confused for a few seconds. Those few seconds give an entry team time to enter and take control of you and the scene before you can effectively react.

There are several “rules” when using Flash-Bangs. First, you always use at least two – just in case of the unlikely event a flash-bang doesn’t activate – the last thing you need is to enter and have the bad guys able to effectively attack the entry team because the big bang didn’t happen. The other thing is you pull the pin, toss the device, wait a beat and then enter just as, or just after the device goes off. You don’t want your entry team to also be effected and their performance degraded by being exposed to the blast.

The entry team this evening had not been adequately trained with these devices, and as a result, they made some mistakes. They used two devices – which was good, one went in through a back window in the house, the second through the front door. At the front of the house, the team kicked in the door, tossed in the device, and immediately entered the house. The first team member went left, the second to the right. Just across from the front door, was a couch – two people were sitting on the couch when the device was tossed in. It landed right between them.

As the second team member entered, he too was dealing with the effect of the stress related chemicals his body was releasing. As he moved into the room, the flash bang device went off. The officer saw the bright flash, and heard and felt the blast coming from the couch. Seeing the two guys on the couch, he later said he thought one of them had just fired a shotgun, or some large caliber handgun – directly at him. He immediately raised his pistol from a low ready position and as he moved he fired a round in the direction of one of those sitting on the couch – I don’t know which one, or why he believed one was the threat and the other wasn’t, or why he only fired one round.

As luck would have it – he didn’t hit either of those two guys – in fact, later, when they searched the couch and the wall behind it – they couldn’t find the bullet he had fired. The stress he was under at that moment had some effect on his decision making abilities. He was lucky. Had that bullet actually hit one of the guys on the couch, he would have had to deal with that for the rest of his life. Criminal charges – maybe, maybe not. But knowing you had shot someone that you shouldn’t have – that is a much different burden to carry.

The Tricks a Stressed Brain Plays

Three college kids had a few beers late one night and decided to go elevator surfing (riding on the top of the elevator car as it goes up and down). One was on top of the elevator car, his brother and a friend were inside working the buttons. The kid on top slipped, and fell – he wasn’t crushed as the elevator continued going up, but he landed in an awkward position, and couldn’t breathe as the elevator continued raising until it detected the obstruction and shut down the power. Unable to breathe, he soon suffocated.

Emergency responders arrived, and after restoring power to the elevator, were able to lower it a bit, recover the body and bring it back into the elevator car via the roof access hatch. The body was taken to the hospital in the ambulance. One of our officers was transporting the brother and the friend to the hospital as well – since they were going to be tested for the amount of alcohol and drugs in there systems. As the officer was following the ambulance to the hospital, the ambulance driver failed to stop at a red light, ran the intersection, and the ambulance was hit by a car driving through the intersection on a green light. The officer needed to have dispatch send another ambulance, to the crash involving the first ambulance.

Two stories here. The EMT driving the ambulance had no recollection of the accident. The last thing he clearly remembered was climbing up through the access hatch on the top of the elevator to help recover the body. The next thing he remembered was when the other ambulance showed up to his crash. What he saw and experienced on top of the elevator was traumatic enough to him, that his brain effectively blocked the images and the entire experience – to the point he was driving in a daze when he ran the light.

The second story – later, at the hospital, the brother of the deceased asked our officer if they really needed or had to notify his parents. The accident occurred in late November, a few days before he was scheduled to return home for the Thanksgiving break. The officer, asked if maybe his parents would notice, and might be suspicious if he returned, but his brother wasn’t there at the family event. The young man hadn’t considered that, his focus was only on avoiding what would happen when he sobered up, and had to actually deal with what had happened – including dealing with his parents and other relatives during the holiday

OK, a long post today, but one I feel is very important. I remember a long time teacher and trainer told me that it’s OK to tell a story – but you then need to tie that story directly into the point you are trying to make. So here it is: When unusual circumstances occur, or you are directly involved in a critical incident, your brain and body may do things that you are completely unprepared for. While you can’t prepare for everything that might occur, you can train to deal more effectively with the effect stress will have when you are facing a possible life or death situation. The more you train, the more likely you will be able to not just survive, but excel as you succeed.