Friday, July 18, 2014

Why do life-threatening situations make some people more calm?

An article was posted on the Facebook page of my old bomb squad. In it, the author discusses a Harvard study from the 1980s that looked at what made people calmer in life-threatening situations. ( ( The study looked at “bomb disposal experts” with ten years or more in the field. The author of the study, Stanley Rachman, divided the group into two sub-groups: those who had been decorated for their service and those who had not.

The bomb techs were put into the field in test scenarios that required concentration under stress. In a nutshell, the study found that all bomb techs displayed stable heart rates  but those who were in the decorated group actually showed a drop in heart rate.

Upon further examination, the decorated group also showed higher scores on tests of self-belief than their non-decorated counterparts. In other words, the decorated guys were more likely to have a strong sense of self-value and belief in their abilities than those who were not decorated.

That’s a long-winded way to say “self-confidence.”

If this study is correct, then it is safe to say that confidence is important to job success. That’s the simple take-away.

Looking at it a bit further, though, the concept might get a little muddied.

The idea that high-performers have a greater sense of self-confidence is born out in sports, as well. Anyone who has played or coached little league baseball knows that the new kids on the team have less confidence and are more likely to make mistakes than the kids who have played a season or two. Lack of experience leads to mistakes, obviously, but the fear of making mistakes also leads to mistakes. With experience comes confidence even if only because the player (or tech) learns from mistakes. “Been there, done that” is shorthand for life experience and often the best teacher.

In support of this is a study of heart rate variability in precompetitive stress in high-standard judo athletes ( A series of tests and surveys showed that the pre-game stress affected international-level competitors less than it did national-level competitors. The higher up the judo totem pole the athlete was the less affected he was by pre-competition jitters. Likewise, his or her levels of self-confidence, somatic anxiety, and cognitive anxiety were also higher.

But does this actually mean that more successful athletes and bomb tech (or SWAT operators or patrol officers) are inherently more confident? Or is their confidence born of their success? One could argue that as they gain experience, subjects’ achievement of measures of success should increase correspondingly. As success increases, the confidence that success is possible grows.

In effect, it’s a chicken-and-egg argument. Nevertheless, both studies give an important look into the mind of a high-stress performer. I know from personal experience as a Field Training Officer that some men and women are simply wired to handle the stress of law enforcement while some are not. We have all experienced those moments of stress and fear on the job when there is that microsecond when you go from normal operating mode to what some trainers call “red mode.” Impending danger makes your brain kick into a primal fight-or-flight mode and your body floods with adrenalin to allow you to do whatever it is you have to do next: fight, chase, run away, draw a gun, a Taser, an asp.

For me, that switch was like I entered a totally different level of operations: time slowed down, the world got substantially brighter as my pupils dilated to take in more light to pull in more visual information, thoughts became fluid and rapid. I had trainees who went to pieces, either standing stock still, frozen, or running without direction, or, worse, charging in without a plan or rationale behind his actions.

At bomb squad tryouts we all had to wear a heavy, hot bomb suit in the Florida sun while performing tasks that were strenuous and that required thought. Body temperatures in the suit went to fever levels, breathing became difficult, and, when crawling through a tight area with a 100-pound helmet-and-suit combo, it took mental effort to remain calm. Not all did. One seasoned detective panicked and tore at his visor to get air.

With time, these activities became easy. Each operator saw that he could survive and function in the suit, so he became more confident. Confidence leads to more success. And so on.

What does this suggest about our training methods in law enforcement? In our travels around the country, we meet hundreds of officers and deputies at agencies of all sizes. Most report that training at their agencies is most often an us vs them structure. The trainers are the experts and they put their trainees in their place. This is most evident in the high-risk, realistic fire scenarios using simunitions or similar training tools. Most often, the trainers win—and when they win they win big. They love to show the less trained that they can shoot them easily.

There is something to be learned from getting shot in these scenarios but there is something to be gained from success, too. Gradually ramping up the level of performance needed to succeed against the trainers, requiring trainees to improve their game each time, can also yield good results. This is highlighted in the research cited above. Top-level judo athletes did not get that way by fighting top-level competitors from day one. It was a progression.

Of course, in law enforcement, we don’t have the luxury of a progression on the street. It is what it is. You are handed a situation and you have just one chance to deal with it. There is no going back, no Mulligans, no do-overs. Nevertheless, our training should progress the student from one level to the next, allowing for the building of confidence and the expectation of success (and the confidence that comes from it) with each repetition.

One can argue (and rightly) that the study’s division of bomb techs into “decorated” and “non-decorated” is, in the big picture, ambiguous. In one agency, you may get decorated for just about any on-duty act where other agencies do not give out decorations without overwhelmingly good reason. Some commanders decorate only their favorite team members. It could be argued that, in those cases, the confidence comes from knowing a commander is supportive of the officer rather than the officer’s confidence in his abilities. But all that, while certainly realities of the cop world, misses the point of the studies.

In the end, confidence is a valuable commodity in law enforcement, sports or any aspect of life. Experience—repetition, practice, training—is the best teacher, as it allows us to gain the exposure to more of the possibilities of the task at hand, whether that’s bomb disposal or dealing with an angry domestic situation. For optimal results, we should endeavor to make our colleagues more confident of their skills and in each other. Confidence builds confidence.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How do you roll?

Becoming a member of a special team is the goal of many police officers. It sets you apart from the crowd that is already set apart from the public. You get special training, wear special clothes, and operate in special ways. It’s just how you roll.

But when your SWAT or EOD team rolls, who rolls with you?

I deal with teams all over the nation and get surprisingly different answers to that question. In some places, SWAT goes on its own. Sometimes, EOD rolls with them. In most places, when Negotiators go so do SWAT. EOD teams typically go alone, unless they linked with a SWAT team as a matter of SOP or if circumstances require them to be there.

There is no national standard. There are no regional norms. In fact, agencies in the same county may dispatch their special teams in totally different ways. My former agency never rolled EOD with anyone else. SWAT and EOD were rarely (as in almost never) together. They certainly did not train together. In fact, they barely spoke. EOD was the red-headed stepchild of the special ops group. Negotiators were called out when needed. Our SWAT guys trained to do breaching charges that, in many agencies, are set up and placed by bomb squad techs. While many agencies I work with have their bomb tech breachers in the stack with the SWAT team, my agency did not invite EOD to train with them or participate in call outs. I thought this was “normal” for law enforcement. It wasn’t until I hit the road representing my employer that I found out that this model is, in fact, fast becoming outmoded.

There a few reasons for this kind of lack of integration: finances, traditions, and compartmentalized management are the chief issues. Financially, it is simply expensive to roll the bomb squad and SWAT to every call out. It’s a lot of overtime. Lots of fuel costs. Many agencies don’t feel the cost outweighs the benefits. However, there are a growing number of departments at which it does happen. In those agencies, the bomb squad typically sets up any breaching charges and the EOD robot is an integral part of any tactical operation. Our own EOD products first made their tactical debuts through cross-team operations. Our Sentinel repeater/camera unit became a rapid deployment surveillance camera and the control radio fed signals from both the Remotec robot and Sentinel back to command. The advantages were instantly obvious.

The biggest impediment to team integration is tradition. “It’s just not done that way,” say a lot of commanders. SWAT is SWAT, EOD is EOD and the two don’t meet up unless it’s absolutely necessary. Negotiators are just along for the ride and allowed to do their job until they run out of words and nothing seems to be working out. Despite the almost universal use of technology and robotics in both disciplines, this us/them attitude still persists in many places. Again, this attitude prevails on its own; it’s not something you can predictably map by regional, demographic, or political boundaries.

For the most part, the us/them model is going away as the “old school” commanders retire and are replaced by a younger generation more open-minded and willing to try new methods and practices. But that doesn’t mean that compartmentalized management is going away. In many agencies, there is an established command and administrative structure that effectively isolates units from each other. Training days are different, training locations are decentralized, and departmental priorities do not reflect those of the boots on the ground and their commanders. I hear OFTEN from SWAT, EOD and Negotiator commanders that they would like nothing more than to train with each other regularly. “Once a year is really not cutting it,” one SWAT commander told me. “I want to know what those guys in EOD are capable of and I want them to know how we work so they can help us out with the robot and surveillance tasks.” While this seems like an obvious direction to move operationally, it often requires knocking down administrative and org chart walls that have long separated functional units.

The positive news is that, as technology becomes more and more cross-discipline, teams of various types are finding advantages in working together to maximize their hardware. SWAT guys still like to kick in doors but I’ve found they are all too willing to get a bomb robot on scene to peek in the window to see where the bad guy is.

Technology is actually driving a lot of these operational changes. In my own experience, we present teams with technology that is so obviously cross-disciplinary in nature that commanders have started re-writing SOPs and rescheduling monthly training sessions to accommodate the new gear. It speaks highly of the products but even more highly of the insightful group of professionals who can see the obvious benefits of coordinated efforts.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What's on the other side of the door?

What's on the other side of the door?

I recently met with a group of special operations professionals at a large sheriff’s office in Florida. The group represented the SWAT, EOD and crisis negotiations disciplines. While all of the men were at a senior command level, none were classic “administrators.” Each was active with their teams—they did the dynamic entry, wore the bomb suit, and manned the throw phone with barricaded subjects.

Put another way, they were still on the front lines. They still do the job.

That’s an important point to consider when talking about officer safety on a high-risk call out. These guys deal with the issue first-hand, and their views on how to conduct joint operations more safely and with more efficiency were pretty much in step with what I’d say is current and contemporary. All three of them saw the value of technology, particularly the use of rapidly deployed on-scene surveillance systems, robot penetration into a hot zone, and the sharing of and access to live video from multiple sources on-the-fly and securely.

On the surface, relative agreement among a group of special ops officers doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. But, it is for a couple of obvious reasons. First, it shows that technologies that were new and novel--and maybe a little experimental—just a few years ago are now seen as emerging necessities today. Second, it hints at the trend toward inter-squad operations (EOD/SWAT/Negotiators) that is becoming more and more the norm (not in my former agency, sadly, but in others all across the country). And finally, it speaks volumes about the change from “old school” operations that steered away from technology as too new, too expensive and somehow too likely to detract from good police work.

The Old School is still with us. I know, those of you who are reading a blog are less likely to BE one of those people or even to believe they still exist, but they do. Thankfully, not as much as even a couple of years ago.

 I deal with all levels of law enforcement, from patrol guys to top-level brass. Climbing the ranks to the top of the chain of command does not usually come without a lot of experience as one of the boots on the ground. Most senior leaders in law enforcement have slogged their way up from patrol to stripes then brass, often with side trips (or whole careers) on special ops teams. Most remember what it’s like to be stacked up next to the door of a drug house or standing hours in the summer heat directing traffic. But, many remember it only as a concept—as part of a good cop story—but not as a part of daily life. So, when they are asked “What is necessary to do the job well and safely?” they are more likely to answer what was true a decade-and-a-half ago: five good guys, a ram and maybe a flash bang.

Today’s SWAT commander knows the value of technology to a tactical officer. While stacking outside a door behind which lies any sort of unknown danger is certainly do-able, who wouldn’t want to have a robot or pole cam peeking in a window to get some intel on what’s inside? Of course, that info is usually relayed to the team by radio.

Take it a step further. How much better would it be to have that sneek peek delivered to your ruggedized smart phone while you are stacked outside that door?

When presented with that option, the SWAT commander I was meeting with said, “Yeah. I want that. That’s a no-brainer.” And he’s right.

Having been one of those guys who went through a few doors behind which were some not-so-right-in-the-head people with varying types of armament, I know the lack of intel can be disconcerting. I remember asking the terrified wife of a despondent man barricaded in a bedroom if he was armed. Her response was, “No. Yes, Well, maybe. He has two pistols and a shotgun…and they might be in there with him. Or not. I really don’t know.”

I would have liked to have at least some idea of what we were getting ourselves into. A robot peeping through the window would have been great. Having that video delivered to me and my three companions in the hallway would have been like Christmas in July.

Technology, for all professions and socio-economic classes, has gone mainstream. Computing power was once held only by a few wealthy companies. Now, elementary school kids carry iPhones capable of accessing unlimited data at the drop of a virtual hat. It follows that the same technology—personified by the smart phone and tablet—that allows us to find our way across town and Google the answers to just about any question will also allow law enforcement access to live video and current information that will help keep officers safe and help yield bad situations end well.

Personally, I like the idea of democratizing the information that is available on-scene. Instead of a commander seeing video feeds, deciding what it important in it and relaying that info to the boots on the ground, it makes sense that the actual officers whose lives depend on it get to review the intel. View then act. Look then leap.

My barricaded subject in the bedroom story ended the way a good cop story should. We went in like gangbusters, surprised him before he could pick up either of the pistols or the shotgun that was on the bed three feet from him. We lucked out. He happened to walk away and had his back to his weapons. It would have been really nice NOT to have had to rely on luck, wouldn’t it?


Naturally, given that I work for a company that is on the cutting edge of this kind of technology, I am particularly interested in the opinions of those of you on the front lines. What would help you do your job better? What kind of data is necessary to help keep you and your fellow officers safe? Take a look at the link above to see what we have now and tell what you think.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Robots in law enforcement -- today and tomorrow

Everyone involved in law enforcement robotics wonders at (and is trying to shape) the future of robots in our field. Robots have a relatively extensive history in law enforcement, but mostly in the special operations end of the LE spectrum. EOD teams have long been required to be equipped with heavy-duty robots that do many of the functions of a suited-up bomb tech—and with good reason, since explosive devices are inherently unpredictable and their detonation usually causes catastrophic damage to anyone nearby. It’s certainly preferable to risk a machine over a person. While robots are making inroads into other areas of law enforcement, their presence is far from universal. The use and type of robot in “tactical” scenarios is wide open.

FBI requirements for EOD teams requires robots with certain characteristics be a part of the bomb squad toolbox. The operational parameters for EOD robots are fairly straightforward since the end functionality is to render safe a suspicious device. Speed is not an issue, though weight-pulling and the ability to withstand the recoil of a PAN disruptor is.  There are only a handful of robots that meet those specs, so choices are few. Remotec and ICORR are the most common types in non-military use in the US today.

A growing segment of the robotics market is the “tactical” robot. There is no universal standard for what constitutes a tactical robot. Similarly, there is no standard for what is truly a tactical situation. Typically, “tactical” in law enforcement means “SWAT.” That limited application of the term “tactical” reflects an equally limited view of tactical strategies for day-to-day law enforcement. Having been a deputy in a high crime area, I can say that there are two schools of thought for patrol officers: those that put a high level of tactical thought and planning into their daily jobs—how to approach a subject house, how to approach a traffic stop—and those who find tactical thinking to be “overkill,” more for the SWAT wannabees and young guys still fired up about their jobs.

Currently, tactical robots are used mostly by SWAT or other fast response teams. They are deployed on a situational basis on high-risk calls only. There are no universal standards for tactical robots and their use is far more idiosyncratic than in any other aspect of the profession. The comparatively giant EOD robots like the Remotec F6 series are too large and heavy for most SWAT purposes, so mini-robots, eight balls, and throwbots all have found their place in the tactical team toolbox. While they are all useful, they have serious limitations or shortcomings. Throwbot and minis get caught up in clothes and shoes on the ground. They can’t see on top of beds or over couches. They can’t open doors.

Worse still is the small robots’ ridiculously short range of operation and of radio control.  Often, operators have to walk the robot from cover to an area where it can penetrate a subject location to get intel. At a training operation last year, I watched as two cover officers with AR-15s accompanying a robot operator, weapon slung, who drove their small tactical robot about 100 feet ahead. Why, I asked the operator? “Because our control system doesn’t go that far so we have to walk it up.” This kind of operational necessity is an example of technology not meeting the needs of the user. What is really needed is a good mid-size robot with long range and useful functions.

In Oregon, Sergeant Tristan Sundsted is the head of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office robot unit. Yes, robot unit. Their operations are far and away the most advance and forward-thinking of any I’ve come across in my travels in the US a robotics company marketing director. Sgt. Sundsted is setting the bar high for other law enforcement professionals. (For the record, neither he nor his agency are customers of my company; I report on them simply because they are doing it right.) Sgt. Sundsted's team has spent more time on the ground using robots than possibly any unit out there. As a former EOD team member, I am pretty adept at using a robot to get the job done, but the diversity and range of uses the Washington County team's robots see on a weekly basis far outstrips the typical bomb guy's experiences.

Sgt. Sundsted reports that standard operating procedure for their sheriff’s office is to use robots wherever and whenever possible. Each patrol shift heads out with a robot. Robots are used in conjunction with or in place of a dog. If a fugitive hides in a building, SOP in many agencies is to clear the structure manually: officers enter and execute a room-by-room search. We’ve all done it. It can be nerve wracking and dangerous. Other agencies release a K9 into the building. The dog smells around and finds the bad guy. While this second option keeps the human officers out of harm’s way, it does nothing for intel gathering. A dog can get shot and then all we know is that there is an armed fugitive in the building. Somewhere.

The third and fourth options are to send a dog and a robot or just a robot. A robot alone can be effective depending on the size and contents of the building but a robot-and-dog team could be unbeatable. It may be possible to dodge a robot’s video camera sweep, but you can’t hide your smell. Once located, the robot can go in for closer examination and send back live video streams of what the suspect is up to, possibly showing weapons or booby traps.

The limitations of robots in such a patrol scenario are obvious. It is conceivable that a new wave of all-terrain, high-speed robots will be available to meet the need for fast pursuit over longer distances but there has to be some advances in technology before this is realistic. LE robots are battery powered, and range is an issue, particularly when on-board lighting and rough terrain draw power, as well. Speed, too, can be a deal-breaker. Few robots can outrun a man, particularly in open terrain. Digital control latency--the lag time between signals going out from a control radio to the robot and back--also becomes an issue at high speed. A robot moving at walking speed is much less likely to crash with a 1/10 of a second of latency. A robot driving at 20mph may find that fraction of a second to be just enough to make dodging a pothole or downed log impossible.

"Any time you go for high speed you also need suspension," says Lithos President and lead robot designer Allen Mann. "LE robots aren't designed with suspension at all. It's just not necessary at slow speeds, but once you start going fast suspension is going to be critical for control." 

The final impediment to the practical use of robotics in the field is the deployment of weaponry. Few robots are armed even with Tasers. The use of lethal weapons is still a public relations nightmare that keeps the practice a future option rather than a current practice. But it wasn’t long ago that military drones were simply observation platforms and lethal weaponry was never going to be on our military menu. That’s certainly changed.

In the future, a true patrol robot scenario is easy to envision. With enhanced sensors and faster speeds over the ground, robots could easily be a standard tool for street patrol units in both urban and rural areas. The days of special ops-only robotics are drawing to a close and a more universal application of robotic elements is soon to follow.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Demos vs. Free Trials

Demos vs. Free Trials

For those of you who have been part of the Lithos circle for more than a few years, you probably remember the two-week free trial we used to offer for our digital radio product. While we did go around the country showing people how the digital radio worked, installing it on Remotec robots, and walking everyone through a test drive, we normally sent the radio to agencies and let them test it out themselves. Why? And why don’t we do that with all of our products?

Robot control systems are pretty simple, really. You slide the receiver into the ONLY place it fits on your robot, plug it in and turn it on. The antenna cable plugs into your Andros control panel and then the antenna itself goes on top of the EOD truck or even on top of the Pelican case the antenna was shipped in. Now you drive your robot. There’s no learning curve. It’s plug-and-play and there are no new skills to develop to operate it. Most of the agencies who tried it loved it and purchased it. There really was no “selling” involved.

Our newer products—notably the CommandLink family of products—take a little more explanation. With eight varieties of CommandLink, it is not inherently obvious which is right for you. We have a link on our website that will actually walk you through the decision process for picking out a CommandLink that’s right for you, but some people just want to see it all in person. So we travel.

Whenever we show the CommandLink, we start with the Overwatch system. It has all the bells and whistles that any special ops team would want. There’s something in it for SWAT, EOD, and negotiators—and it all ties together nicely for use with incident command setups. Overwatch provides the most bang for the buck in part because it can be used for ANY situation with ANY type of special team. GPS tracking of all iOS assets on scene is useful for SWAT. Satellite mapping of the site is great for any special team. The whiteboard feature is ideal for SWAT team planning and intel sharing. Take a picture and share it with everyone on scene. Pull a photo off your mug shot system and share that, too. Text info can be transmitted the same way. And everything is time and date stamped for later use.

Except for the Audio iLite, all the CommandLink systems allow the sharing of video and audio. When we show the Overwatch system, it’s very easy to explain that one or two video systems can be shared over the system with full military encryption via a password protected iOS app (soon to be ported into Android). Same system, just a few less bells and whistles. And that’s okay, because some teams don’t need all the bells and whistles. Sometimes, just a bell will do. Or a whistle.

Negotiators like to share their throw phone video with commanders on-scene. But, what if you don’t have a video-enabled throw phone? That is the unique niche of the iLite Audio product. It’s designed to be used with audio throw phone systems like the Rescue Phone, with whom we often do demos at trade shows. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to share audio.

When we show you our stuff at your office or in your training facility, we like to tell you what each level will do for you. We’ll talk to you, learn how you work, and suggest the best fit. Believe it or not, the best choice isn’t always the top-of-the-line product. For a bomb squad with one robot that rarely does callouts with SWAT or negotiators, it’s overkill to buy Overwatch. If you have a limited budget, there’s no good reason to get NOTHING when the lower end products in the CommandLink line can dramatically improve your agency’s capabilities.

What also comes through in the demo is that your agency can improve its capabilities in just a few moments. Literally. CommandLink is that fast to set up. We set up the entire system from scratch in about ten minutes. The installed units can be ready to run in about three minutes. The software is intuitive, too. Most officers—even those who are not tech savvy—will pick up the iOS devices we bring with us and are navigating through the system in just minutes.

With the marketing team on hand, any questions can be answered right away. And there are always questions. We love it when we see the wheels turning as SWAT officers and EOD techs figure out what the system can do and how it can inform and augment their operational systems. Some make suggestions, some test things out on-scene. Others call their bosses and request they come to see what we have right away!

We will still do a trial demo of the radio system, but we want to see you in person when you see what the CommandLink system does. It’s a little like Christmas morning. It’s that amazing a product…and it’s fun to watch a bunch of cops look like kids opening really cool presents!