Common Operating Picture in Action

Jul 15, 2011

COP – Common Operating (or Operational) Picture – includes relevant operational information such as ­command post, snipers, enemies, buildings, and terrain. It can be also represented visually, such as with maps, photos, pictometry, diagrams and charts. An effective COP will be simultaneously available to all ­participants while the action is occurring.

This article describes the COP from a SWAT/QRT (Special Weapons And Tactics/Quick Response Team) point of view, and demonstrates the benefits of using a COP in the context of an actual call-out event – that of a barricaded gunman scenario.

Quick Response Team (QRT)
In Pennsylvania, the York County Quick Response Team is a multi-jurisdictional tactical law enforcement team protecting over 415,000 residents in 72 municipalities. The QRT includes three dozen officers from eight police departments and the York County Sheriff’s Office. Ten additional officers make up the Negotiation Unit. In order to maintain a strong tactical option in the face of shrinking municipal budgets, local police chiefs support the all-volunteer team and allow time for the required training. The team participates in monthly training covering a variety of special threat and high-risk incidents. QRT members are trained and current in barricaded gunman scenarios; hostage rescue; high-risk warrant service; vehicle and bus assaults; active school shooting; rural tracking of fugitives; and VIP Protection.

The York QRT provides law enforcement agencies within the county with a specialized, highly trained unit that is able to respond to and resolve incidents of a critical nature, when traditional methods and operations could expose participants to undue risk. The unit attempts to resolve such incidents with the least amount of risk and vulnerability to the team, citizens, victims, perpetrators and other parties involved.

In addition to special threat and high risk incidents, this unit is equipped to respond to incidents involving terrorism, be it domestic or foreign, where expressly trained officers are required to isolate, contain, stabilize, mitigate and resolve the situation. This is accomplished through a collaborative partnership effort between the York County District Attorney’s Office, the York County Chiefs of Police Association and participating police agencies within the county.

It is no mere coincidence that the word “risk” appears in our mission statement three separate times. Our COP allows us, first and foremost, to reduce risk to citizens and participating law enforcement and, where practical, to the suspects.

Even though the team’s members are, technically, part-time, the tactical team itself provides full time service – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – to 72 municipalities not serviced by the Pennsylvania State Police. Let’s take a look at the tools at our disposal to help us accomplish less risky outcomes to high-risk encounters.

Mobile Command and Control System
The York QRT has deployed the DragonForce system from Drakontas. DragonForce is a suite of collaboration tools that empowers our team to observe, orient, decide and act more safely and efficiently. It provides an advanced mobile command and control (C2) system which enhances situational awareness, operational efficiency and safety of our officers and provides the QRT with a COP. This system augments radio communications and allows emergency responders to collaborate in real-time using commercial off-the-shelf hardware. The system employs a web-based command center and mobile handheld units that are interconnected via a wireless network to establish a COP among Command and field personnel. Personnel and other assets are tracked and displayed on a geo-referenced map using the GPS chips in the mobile handsets. System users can exchange text messages, share images, situation report cards of specific individuals, and whiteboard annotations, resulting in a real-time collaborative experience for which the user can coordinate and execute missions efficiently and effectively.

Barricaded Gunman / COP in Action
The action described here is of a barricaded gunman and the call-out of QRT members from both tactical and negotiations. I will contrast and compare what happened in this instance with our COP with what would have occurred prior to utilizing the COP.

At any time of the day or night, a Chief can request assistance from the QRT command. The next step is to ensure that all call-out criteria are met. To make that process as fast, efficient and uniform as possible, we have developed a Call Out Check List. This step would be identical whether we are using a mobile C2 system with COP or not.

We start by asking about a known or suspected record of violence, such as: Homicide; Assault with Deadly Weapons; Robbery; Other violent felony; or Other (Resisting, assault on police). In this case, the ­suspect had discharged a firearm at his family during a family dispute in the family home.

We want to know if the suspect is on parole or probation. In this incident, he was not. Is the suspect a known drug or alcohol abuser, if so, what type of drug? Our suspect is highly intoxicated and on medication for depression. Our suspect was mentally unstable. He had depression issues. The suspect in this case did not have military or police training. We also want to know about any associates or organizations with known or suspected violent criminal activity. There were none known in this instance.

An assessment has to be made regarding the presence or likelihood of all types of weapons. Explosives, automatic weapons and booby traps are mandatory callouts. This suspect had a semi automatic pistol and numerous high powered rifles.

Geographic barriers must also be considered, with a fortified site being a mandatory callout. Our intelligence indicated that all the doors were locked.

The checklist also takes into account counter surveillance and monitoring by the suspect, including any intelligence gathering the subject might be doing on police using scanners, radios, radio traffic web sites, etc. None were known, nor were there armed counter surveillance such as guards or lookouts. We also want to know about friends, relatives or others in or around the site, their names, descriptions, whatever information is available. In this case, numerous family members were on scene and provided valuable information about the gunman and the scene itself.

Each checklist item has an associated scoring value and the total score for all checklist questions determines if we will deploy the QRT. A yes answer to the “known or suspected history of violence” question alone is a mandatory callout.

In this instance, the score was high, so the team was activated. An average response time is 45 minutes to an hour. In this case our initial 8 officers, members of our Hasty Team, responded and stabilized the situation while waiting for the main team to arrive.

Hasty Team
The “Hasty Team” are the first officers on site. They secure the site, insure the safety of the public and determine best placement for snipers, the command post, the negotiation team command post, and other important logistical considerations. Our Hasty Team was also able to confirm the accuracy of information provided on the Checklist and gather additional intelligence while the rest of the team was en route.

Regardless of what the checklist says about the suspect’s ­mental condition, we want to know their condition right now, on this scene, at this time.

  • Is the suspect mentally unstable? Yes, it is confirmed he has depression issues over the loss of a job.
  • If he is being treated for mental illness, can family members provide info on medications he is taking?
  • Are dogs in the residence with the suspect? If so what type? No animals in this instance.
  • Can witnesses/family members or local officers provide YCQRT with an accurate diagram of the interior of the target residence? Yes, the wife provided the team w/ an accurate diagram of the house.

We are not limited to this information and we gather as much additional information as possible based upon the scene, prevailing conditions and requests from command. We were provided a list of weapons in the house and entry/exit points.

While the Hasty Team is in transit and in parallel with their information confirmation and gathering process I work in conjunction with other QRT leaders and the local authorities to determine what other human and physical assets should be deployed.

Human Assets
The Hasty Team is only the “first wave.” In transit only minutes behind the Hasty Team are the tactical element, sniper/counter sniper element, negotiations element, tactical medics, Public Information Officer (PIO), a Legal Advisor from the District Attorney’s Office and Technical Resource Personnel deployed as needed for any given action. In the incident I am describing we had all the aforementioned support. All of the team personnel respond in order to maximize the chances of a successful outcome and, because the incident I am describing is a barricaded gunman issue, I was comfortable that the team was trained and ready. In this incident I also chose to request Fire Police to create a perimeter and deny civilians access to the target location, fire equipment in case any of the chemical munitions we used caused a fire and Basic/Advanced Life Support ambulance personnel for any injuries. One of our key operating rules is: better to have and not need, than need and not have.

Hardware Resources
The York County Quick Response Team is able to purchase and maintain vital equipment through grants funded by PCCD (Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency), donations by York County municipalities, York County Chiefs of Police Association and numerous private donations.

The team has a Lenco BEARCAT armored tactical vehicle for ­citizen and officer rescue. In this case, we deployed our armored vehicle to move officers safely to the scene and civilians away from the scene.  

Other necessary equipment includes such items as pole cameras capable of safely searching danger zones, Level IIIA and IV Ballistic Shields, encrypted communications to assure privacy of communications from suspects, press and the public, a tactical robot to provide a less lethal option when required, numerous less lethal and chemical options, night vision for tactical members and snipers, a negotiations phone with numerous tactical capabilities, a command post, and the DragonForce Common Operating Picture capability supplemented with Pictometry imaging to tie it all in.

We used numerous camera systems to get a better view of the target location with minimal exposure to tactical team members. This allowed our sniper element to have eyes on the location – with lethal capability if need be. Our negotiations unit was needed to interview witnesses and negotiate with the suspect in the house. We utilized the Dragonforce Equipment in the Command Post to link all tactical, sniper and negotiations personnel to the most updated intelligence we could provide.

Perimeter, Command Post and Community Security
While the remainder of the assets were on their way or arriving at the scene, the Hasty Team is also responsible for establishing a perimeter and making certain determinations relative to setting up the command post.

The Hasty Team also considered cover and concealment options for our shooters to assess if the cover could protect them from a rifle round and if they can move safely in and out of an observation position. The team determined that their cover was sufficient and snipers would be covering the windows.

We also considered the perimeter and if there is a crossfire or over-penetration factor with the types of weapons we have. We always set up with crossfire in mind and make sure that fields of fire are set up based on that.

We had a plan if the suspect surrenders prior to York County QRT arrival and a response if the suspect attempts to access vehicles. We also took into account the proximity of the neighbor’s houses and decided it was safer to leave neighbors in their homes.

Command Post setup is second only to perimeter setup when dealing with an incident that requires response of the Quick Response Team. While some of the Hasty Team members established a perimeter, other team members determined an optimal location for the command post. In this case, the presence and location of the Command Post vehicle was critical because it is the heart of our DragonForce situational awareness tool. Without it we were left to conventional observation techniques and limited coordination capability of our team members.

We determined that the suspect most likely had weapons with a range of 300 yards and that the Command Post could be setup safely within 1,000 feet of the target location. We rolled in our mobile command post, which can hold 10 people, and made arrangements for other areas to conduct interviews of witnesses and family members.

We sited our Command Post vehicle to isolate it from the media, public and non-law enforcement personnel in such a position that we had a direct road from the Command Post to the target location and sufficient space for medical and fire personnel to stage in close proximity to the Command Post.

As explained here, many benefits can be realized through the application of a collaborative, real-time Common Operating Picture tool in a real-life situation. Previously available only to elite Special Forces units overseas, this tool is now much more widely accessible to domestic law enforcement in a package that is less expensive and very easy to operate.

The COP tool provides benefits that allow any department or agency to justify purchasing a COP tool for their own operations, ranging from increasing officer safety and the safety of the public to providing real time collaboration.   

Craig S. Losty joined the York County Quick Response Team in 1996 and has been Tactical Commander since 2006. He has a 28 year career in law enforcement including a variety of roles in both military and civilian law enforcement. Commander Losty also writes The Swat Debrief blog ( and does speaking engagements and training. He can be reached at

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a one hour program created by the Law Enforcement And Public Safety Network (LEAPS.TV) which can be viewed free of charge by Frontline Security subscribers at <>.
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