The Value of a Good Comms Lead

Last weekend, there was a shooting that took the life of Chicago Police Officer Ella French. In a heart-breaking and ironic twist of fate, Officer French had recently been in the news for saving the life of a 1 year old baby who had been shot in the head. That’s how the struggle between Good & Evil works sometimes. Here is a photo of Shield Maiden French, Defender of Chicago:

Officer Ella French

Yesterday, the Chicago PD released the audio of the radio traffic. The poise and control of the dispatcher as he organized the response efforts was nothing short of amazing. I’ve heard dispatchers break down crying during these situations, but this man, whose name hasn’t been released, was the kind of communications person you need on your team.

Here, we’re going to analyze his actions and how they helped preserve life, get the suspects in custody, maintain a clear tactical picture, and kept chaos from over-running the airwaves.

If you’ve only ever trained for emergency communications and never been involved in an actual emergency situation (or combat operation) using radios, you can’t comprehend what happens. Everyone feels a need to say something or ask questions to get a better feel for what is happening. Standard protocols tend to go out the window.

When I say emergency, I’m not talking about your SKYWARN nets or a hurricane. I’m talking about life and death injuries, hostile parties, and the unknown. Weather moves in, then leaves. Gun battles can rage for hours or days. Fires can do the same.

This is the reason why the military compartmentalizes their comms. For example, you have each squad member on a squad tactical net, but only the squad leader on the platoon tactical net. That’s to ensure that the platoon leader is only hearing from 3 or 4 people, instead of 40. At the company level, same thing. Only the platoon leaders, weapons platoon leader, and any artillery forward observers/combat air controllers have access. This cuts down on the confusion. Use this model in your planning.

In Chicago, there was routine traffic going on, but in the background, the dispatcher heard one officer break in and it sounded like he was running, while others were calling out random things. The dispatcher immediately told everyone else to stop talking and asked over the air “Who is running right now?”. Yes, that probably violated procedures, but it got the ball rolling. When one of the officers responded and gave a brief description of who he was chasing, the dispatcher repeated it immediately and got help started.

Favorite Antenna for Daily Use:

A few seconds later, the officer comes on the air, but you can’t make out what he’s saying. The dispatcher, through experience, knew what had happened. He immediately called out that he had an officer down and gave the officer’s last known location. Almost immediately after that, we hear the last words from Officer French as she reports that she is also shot. The first officer comes back on, saying that he thinks he wounded the suspect and gave a last known direction.

That, my friends, is tactical fortitude. He knows he’s shot and in serious condition. He got out a workable description and last known direction of the two assailants, and gave the location of his more seriously wounded partner.

I saw this once before, here in Detroit on the night when two officers were killed in a traffic stop. Officers Fettig and Bowens were both shot by the suspect, but when Officer Bowens called out on the radio, he called for assistance, saying “My partner has been shot, get her some help”. When responding units arrived , they found that Bowens had also been shot 9 times, and Fettig twice. It was determined that the suspect had come back, and Bowens died while shielding Fettig’s body in the street from the suspect. Heroism is out there.

As always happens in these situations, in Chicago, officers began calling out on the radio that they were on the way or asking for the description. Rather than tie up the radio answering these, the dispatcher handled this the best way possible. He used his more powerful base station radio output to talk over everyone else. The first thing he said was “STAY OFF THE CHANNEL”. That powerful statement set the stage for a successful operation.

He immediately said “You don’t need to tell me where you’re going, just go. I have wounded officers and this is what I need”. He then proceeded to describe, from his map display, where he wanted a two block perimeter set up and then repeated the description, as well as his warning to stay off the air. He advised that the medics were enroute, and then checked in with the injured officer to reassure him. When the officer gave an updated direction of travel, the dispatcher immediately went to work. He said “Guys, move the perimeter to 3 blocks. I need a 3 block perimeter with a focus on the railroad”, and then described the direction of the railroad tracks.

A short time later, one of the supervisors called out that the suspects were in custody and one was shot. Did the dispatcher then relax? No, he seamlessly moved to the next phase, just like we would in a combat situation, Medevac.

He again repeated his command to stay off his channel and said the nearest hospital was a trauma center and gave it’s address, then ordered that officers shift their perimeter to close all traffic along that route. A supervisor made the decision to toss the wounded officers into police cars for the short ride to hospital.

While they were enroute, one of the officers called on the radio that he was taking his wounded officer to a different hospital. Here’s where again the dispatcher saved the day: He told the officer that he going to the wrong hospital. He pointed out that the ER that they were heading to was not a TRAUMA CENTER and that they needed to turn around and head for the trauma center that he originally sent them to. He also stated that the trauma center was already expecting a shot officer, and the hospital wasn’t.

The lesson here is that in your preparedness group, you need a comms person who isn’t afraid to tell people that they are wrong and that they need to just do as they are told. Don’t get me wrong, initiative is good thing, as is independent thought. However, in the midst of combat, which this was, you don’t have the whole picture. Your communicators and command team does.

The other lesson is that the communications team needs to maintain an awareness of the bigger picture, just like we saw here. He had a map display, which led to a quick perimeter and easy capture of the armed suspects. He also had information that the officers didn’t about which hospital was a trauma center.

I Swear By These:

In executive protection, when conducting our planning, part of it is where is the nearest Level 1 trauma center. That’s vital because a Level 1 center can PROVIDE trauma care, and Level 2 can INITIATE it. That’s the difference between life and death, my friends. In your emergency and contingency planning, you should know where the nearest Level 1 trauma center is for everywhere you frequent.

Another lesson learned here is that the communications team doesn’t need to know if you are doing job. They need to know what’s wrong, not what’s happening that should be happening automatically. To put that in a WROL context, if there is a reported security breach, you don’t need everyone calling in on the radio “I’m on my way to my post”. Just go and leave the channel clear for those who need to rely what is NOT going right.

There is a piece of Tactical Wisdom that applies here:

He who answers before listening,

That is his folly & his shame.

Proverbs 18:13

You don’t need to tie up the radio asking questions. If there is information for everyone to share, the communications team will share it. On the other side of that coin, your comms team needs to be effective at quickly paraphrasing information and getting it back out to the larger group. If the team is kept informed, they won’t keep asking questions, or more importantly, leave their post to go and find out what is happening. In a WROL situation, a disturbance at your main Entry Control Point could be to draw security away from other posts.

As you are developing your team, you need to seek at least one, and preferably 2 solid communications staff who can take charge and still communicate effectively, and your team needs to know that the comms team speaks with the authority of your command team. That’s only way Emergency Tactical Communications can work.

This also brings us to equipment. While every member of your team needs their own VHF/UHF radio for tactical communications, your communications team needs mobile or base station radios that can “overpower” the handhelds. Yes, someone who is still talking into their radio won’t hear them, but everyone else will hear the base station rather than Cletus’ screeching about “where are them bogies in the wire at”.

TYT TH-9800D Plus Version Quad Band Cross-Band 50W Mobile Transceiver Vehicle Radio Amateur Base Station, Cable/Software incl
Great Base/Mobile:

A base station with a good antenna will also be able to maintain contact with patrols or observation posts at a farther distance. Make sure your team planning covers this need.

I hope this article helps you in planning for future operations. We should always apply lessons learned form real-world events.

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Published by JD

I am the author of the Tactical Wisdom Series. I am a personal protection specialist and a veteran of the US Marine Corps. I conduct preparedness and self-defense training.

11 thoughts on “The Value of a Good Comms Lead

  1. JD

    Good article illustrating important points. Many of us have run this drill on the 2 way range when it’s for keeps. Good commo is important. As one of my better bosses used to say, live by the RTO, die by the RTO. Best make sure he’s equal to the task.

    Question. Since i no longer have those fancy Harris radios that uncle sam provides, need some help with a power supply for CP base radios. Currently use an Alinco variable supply for the HF radio. It’s ok, but not terribly RF quiet. Would like a future switching power supply that’s quiet across all bands and all modes.

    What are some durable options for 13.8V base station power supplies? Ideally to power a UHF/VHF mobile and maybe an additional SSB CB radio. HF rig is a separate installation.



  2. I’ve been working with the team I’m on to increase their communication skill level. One thing I harp on is learn the international phonetic alphabet. I’m a general class Ham I get tired of long time hams just using any word for a letter. My brain and all our brains can be taught to immediately recognize Romeo of example for the letter ‘R’ In high traffic or poor connections I readily understand Juliet for the Letter ‘J’ but if I hear Japan, it breaks my concentration .and it takes a bit to associate that word with the proper letter. anyway, I really enjoy your posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Important information there. I’ve downloaded the audio. Our church security team will be using this post and the audio as the basis for a training session. We have one position we refer to as Overwatch, who monitors the video cameras and acts as net control for all radio traffic. In the event of a serious problem, Overwatch is responsible for coordinating everything until a supervisor is able to take over (at which time Overwatch is tasked with monitoring the other cameras to make sure that we don’t miss something while all other eyes are focused on the main event).

    In addition, I am net control for a weekly net on 2 meters for our local prep group. At least, I’m supposed to be – being an effective NCS (Net Control Station) for a simplex net takes a lot of net discipline. Since I have the highest power radio and the tallest antenna in the group, I can communicate with everyone, and everyone can communicate with me, but many can’t hear the others. Nets on a repeater have a self-enforced discipline, but a net on simplex is always one small step away from chaos. For a routine net, things work pretty smoothly, but as a couple of incidents on our church security team have shown, we have more work to do if we hope to have effective comms in an emergency. Though I’ve been involved in emergency comms with ARES and RACES for several decades, I still have much to learn and even more to practice. A skilled NCS is a priceless asset.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Will do. After we do the church training session, I’m going to look for an opportunity to adapt it to our prep group. I’ll keep you posted on it. Thanks for all the great material!


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