Sun Tzu's Series Part 7 Methods: Create Unity and Gain the Advantage with Tactical Communication

DARKNESS TO LIGHT “Plan an advantage by listening. Adjust to the situation. Get assistance from the outside. Influence events. Then planning can find opportunities and give you control.” ~Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu says; “plan an advantage by listening.” As Sun Tzu describes listening here, he means using all your senses to gather information and an understanding of the situation. Knowledge can help us remake the ground and climate and bring a turning point to the situation. Let talk about one specific method “tactical communication” which is a critical skill that gives you time, flexibility of movement, the ability to gather more critical information and if used appropriately, the ability to gain coordination, and set up the situation creatively which leads to ultimate success, winning without conflict. Tactical communication as all methods has two sides to consider, the friendly and adversarial.

First let’s look at tactical communication as part of the friendly situation, an individual street officer’s approach to critical incident with back-up responding to a critical incident. We know chaos, disorder and uncertainty are present upon first arrival to a critical incident. We do not know exactly what’s happening with the adversaries and in an attempt to get to the scene and render aid, we may have an individual plan for our approach but we do not have an organized, tactical response and approach to the incident, for all those responding (organizations who plan and train hard are obvious exceptions). However even with good quality training there is still a lot we need to learn about the situation. Communication to responding units and to those individuals on scene working together, is a critical method to utilize. Communication assists all in gathering important information which gives us a better understanding of the situation.

When we respond to a critical incident it’s important to quickly establish (communicate) you are on location and have command and control. This allows others responding to know someone is present on scene and that you can communicate the situation, identify danger or kill zones and set up the perimeter in an effort to isolate and contain the situation. You can direct responding personal of their best avenues of approach and which side of the perimeter they need to cover. If something changes or you need to engage immediately to save lives you communicate this and your location as well, if time allows. The type of situation (considering one shift responding) may require a rally point response verses a perimeter containment? Again it needs to be communicated. Those responding need to know what’s going on and where, to respond and set up accordingly. You also must quickly put an adaptable plan together and communicate this plan, whatever it is, as well. This communication puts us all on the same sheet of music and helps to bring some order to the chaos. This is always beneficial at critical incidents.

Now when talking about tactical communication it’s important to understand that this does not mean we are constantly on the radio relaying our every move. This “over talking” on the radio or elsewhere causes more chaos and disorder. Remember our goal is to bring order to disorder, not add to it…What communication does mean, is that you calmly; clearly and concisely relay critical information in a timely manner. Your every thought does not need to be coming over the radio! I know it’s somewhat human nature under stress, to want everyone to know everything, but resist the urge and just communicate what’s critical.

Responding units should stay off the radio and allow the person on scene and in the best position to relay critical information. You can acknowledge your response, your arrival, your position when you get there and any emergency conditions you encounter, but we do not need to know every street intersection you pass by, getting to the scene. Again let the person on scene who is in the best position to assess the situation direct you. This needs to be controlled immediately with calm leadership and clear communication. Remember, climate is contagious; panic leads to more panic, as calm leads to more calm. Adapt to the situation; do not let the situation adapt to you.

Once first responders are on scene verbal communication between individuals or teams working together to resolve a critical incident is another very important aspect of communication. This communication helps us analyze, assess and focus on the problem at hand. We all know what the plan is and whether or not we need to change and adapt it. Too often we respond and do our own thing at a scene, which brings about confusion and more disorder. It is critical to remember “action depends on understanding” and understanding comes from taking appropriate actions. In critical incidents one feeds of the other.

Some situations require a clandestine approach and hand signals are a way to communicate and relay critical information when this type of response is necessary. Again education, learning and training in the utilization of hand signals is obviously necessary.

Communication also involves strength of character, we cannot afford in critical situations, when the stakes are high to get wrapped up in egos and feeling of others. We must understand that there is risk involved and that time is critical as is often the case in critical incidents. Not going along with a plan because your ego is holding the weight of the world on your shoulders is no reason to interfere with a good plan. The reverse is also true, meaning that; if you are so worried about what others think, you cannot effectively put a plan together and communicate it to others. If either of these two factors are in the equation communication is ineffective and can cost lives. However if there is something tactically wrong with the plan that may jeopardize lives and time allows, say what needs to be said calmly and clearly. Working as a team can give us the best decisions and results as long as it’s based on the situation and not on ego and insecurities.

Example: You receive a call to respond to a single family dwelling house at specific location for an 18 year old male subject threatening to kill himself with a handgun. A single officer arrives first with a two-man back up unit arriving seconds later. The two-man back-up unit watches the single officer walk up to the front door and knock and announce his presence. They say nothing to him but talk to one another about what a stupid move this is. They watch in amazement as the officer walks inside the house and comes back out with the subject in question and the firearm in his control. The incident was resolved through good luck, not good tactics. Any professional with the most basic training can see the potential life threatening ramifications of this approach, despite it safe outcome. The troubling aspect of this was not only the tactical approach to this call by the individual officer, but the lack of communication between the two back-up officers with the first responding officer. They saw it was the wrong approach, had time to communicate it to the officer, but chose to talk to one another about what a mistake this was.

I learned of the handling of this incident through over hearing the two officers talking about this in the squad room an half hour, after the fact. I asked them a simple question as they talked about how obvious it was that this was a bad move and could have easily lead to an officer being injured and killed (their words). “Why did you not say anything in such an obvious situation?” I ask. Their response…”He is a COP, he is suppose to know.” “We did not want to interfere with his decision.” Are you kidding me, I respond… you can talk about it to each other on scene and back at the station but not to the officer while the situation is unfolding and the danger is obvious? They continued to say; “they did not want to create a personal problem with the officer by interfering.” These three guys all got along personally and professionally, so why the lack of communication? We conducted an After Action Review of this case and from that developed a roll call program on tactical responses and approach to calls which included communication.

One of the major lessons learned was that those in our professions tend to get locked into the political correctness of not hurting another officers feelings or questioning decisions. This is a critical mistake in my opinion. Yet I find through training veteran officers it is more common that we like to admit. When it’s brought up in training using a tactical decision game, I get overwhelmingly the same responses as to why they do not communicate their concerns to the officer walking to the front door. I have the honor of talking with about 1000 officers a year in the capacity of instructor and they overwhelmingly, agree it’s a problem. Individual, organizational and cultural! It’s a problem that must be addressed!

Training is the critical component to developing communication skills. Training using tactical decision games, free play exercises, along with after action reviews of incidents handled in an informal setting where all involved get to voice their opinions. Anyone that does not voluntarily interject could be a problem when it comes to communication during an incident. The facilitator of the AAR must draw out opinions from all involved, nobody leaves the room without offering something of a lesson learned, good or bad. This technique works wonders at developing communication amongst officers. They learn that here is no one way of handling any call, that there are a variety of safe ways to approach situations and resolve conflict. These methods build the confidence and push forward the skills of individual officers and hence the ability to communicate their ideas to others.

Making decisions and failure to communicate them, based on the overwhelming worry of what you peers will think, is detrimental to survival and good in the moment, decision making. Yes I know sometimes there is no time to talk and we must trust each other’s decisions and respond…then respond! But when there is time and you see clearly a officer is putting himself in a dangerous situation, have the strength of character to say so and COMMUNICATE IT.

Communication is critical to officer survival and the safe resolution of all calls for service we respond to, especially critical incidents. We must use this simple, yet very important method, communication to obtain the advantage through knowledge positioning. If we cannot understand and apply communication to the friendly situation, how are we ever going to use it appropriately in dealing with the adversarial side of the equation?

Next post Interpersonal Communication a Method to Success on the Adversarial Side.