Training Like SWAT


On a hot summer day in 2010, I was the number-two man in a seven-man element (team). The assigned breacher moved to the front of the formation, forced the door open, while I promptly deployed a flash-bang grenade. I vividly remember the sound, the smell, and the concussion of the flash-bang deployment. We pushed in fast and took a hard left, entered the first room, split left and right, and immediately encountered a suspect at 15 feet. We both engaged the suspect with our short-barreled M4 carbines. The suspect immediately went down. The point-man now owned the down suspect, and I moved into the point position, then pushed forward with the five-man team behind me. We could hear multiple females screaming from the rooms ahead.

I crossed the threshold into a room with two hostages and the hostage taker. All I could see was a handgun projecting from between the two girls’ heads, illuminated by my intensely bright LED weapon light. The suspect’s only feature not shielded by the hostages was his face directly between the hostage’s heads. As I attempted to “L” off on the suspect to gain a shot, I remember the two flashes from the suspect’s pistol and the impact on the left side of my vest. I continued to move into the angle of the shot, then I discharged two rounds directly into the suspect’s head.

Luckily, this was only a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) training scenario; but did this high-intensity training prepare our team for two deadly encounters we would have in the following years and for the many more after? It did, and the fire service should apply the training lessons learned from our brothers and sisters in the law enforcement and military communities.

Training is a fundamental component of the fire service. It reaches far beyond the hard skills of dragging hose and raising ladders; it affects all aspects of our jobs and affects every member from the rookie to the fire chief. So, if it is fundamental, why do we understand so little about it? Every firefighter knows, from recruit school on, that not all trainers and trainings are created equal. Instructors must grasp that the understanding of and technical competency in a skill are just the starting points for transferring that information to a student. SWAT operators have reached a level of mastery in their craft. What are they doing that we in the fire service aren’t?

The SWAT team’s mastery is not just raw training hours refined into a skill evolution or the number of hours they train. It’s how they train that makes them exceptional. Understanding the psychology of training and learning is absolutely critical to take your department’s training to the next level. Among the first training psychology concepts is how to make immediate decisions and act on them.

Setting the Course for Training

One of the best models for understanding decision making is the observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop,1 created by Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd was an Air Force pilot who saw direct action in Korea and trained countless pilots in his 30-year military career.2 He theorized that fighter pilots who could move through their OODA loop faster would prove to be more successful in combat operations.

Law enforcement has been using the OODA loop training for several decades. One law enforcement adaptation is in critical decision-making incidents; officers who can move through their OODA loop faster will decide and act more quickly than a suspect, giving them a significant tactical advantage. The second use is to disrupt the suspect’s OODA loop through a multitude of tactics, interrupting the thought process so that person is constantly restarting the OODA loop sequence.


The key to the first component, observe, is being aware. A heightened sense of awareness is as critical on the everyday emergency medical service scene as it is on the multifamily fire incident. Being a less observant firefighter will delay initiation of your OODA loop sequence.

You can easily help improve observation on the training ground by putting a child’s bike next to the drill tower or by simulating a down power line. This can force students to observe things that are important clues to unknown facts. As trainers, we must evaluate and emphasize each student’s ability to detach from an immediate stimulus to prevent them from getting tunnel vision.

(1) A SWAT officer works through putting his rifle back together blindfolded. (Photo by author.)


In orientation, you accept or deny the stimulus you observed; that’s the end of your OODA loop if you don’t accept the stimulus for what it is. In an active shooter incident, people have stated that they thought they heard fireworks instead of gunshots. This not auditory confusion. Rather, individuals’ brains have rejected the idea that someone is shooting in their office building.

Fireground Size-Up and Decision Making: The RADE Loop

In the fire service, an example is a delayed Mayday call. Unfortunately, in countless examples, firefighters in trouble could not orient to the dire situation, accept the stimulus, and call a Mayday. One training group does a phenomenal job implementing the OODA loop concept in their classes. In their training evolutions, they may throw babies out of second-story windows to unsuspecting firefighters. This interrupts the OODA loop of a firefighter who is trying to get a ladder set; second, it forces the student to orient to the fact someone is throwing a baby out of a window. You can bet your $800 leather helmet that the firefighter who moves through his OODA loop faster when a mother is throwing a baby out of a window is the firefighter who was trained on this.


The third component is decision making. But how do you know what decision to make? Dr. Gary Klein researched how we make decisions and created the recognition-primed decision making (RPD) model.3 RPD is a standalone concept that fits into the OODA loop to best describe decision making. In the RPD model, recognizing familiar patterns to make decisions creates a mental “slide tray” of our experiences and knowledge. We build slide trays through real-world situations in which we implemented solutions, effective and ineffective. The more slides in the tray we have to draw from, the faster we can make a decision. The critical component is understanding that we can build these slide trays through realistic training.

In the SWAT world, this is paramount; an operator may train a thousand repetitions on dealing with a hostage scenario that may only happen once in an entire career. One shot, one chance, all hanging in the balance of training.

The fire service often seems to live in the paradigm, that only actual incident experience translates to competency. Fireground experience that is dissected, reviewed, and improved on is the superior model for building slide trays. However, unless you work for a department that is responding to two or three jobs a tour, you better consider adding to your slide tray through reality-based training. The firefighter or fire officer who has a well-developed slide tray built through years of real world and training experience will perform two tiers above those who are depending on one or the other.

As trainers and students, it is critical to know the importance of RPD for training. First, training must be realistic and translate to real-world experiences. Although the safety and efficiency of propane burn rooms have allure for administrators, they don’t have any translation to the fireground and are more likely to create false slides for younger, less experienced firefighters.

RPD is built every time you train: feeling what the hose feels like with the fully opened bail at maximum flow, hearing the difference between the hose stream hitting a wall vs. flowing through a window, and distinguishing the crackle of a training fire in the growth stage vs. the decay stage. The key for trainers is to ensure they are giving students real-world slides and continually reminding them to consciously acknowledge the sight, sound, smell, and feel of real-world training.

Train like you fight; fight like you train. Trainers must be responsible to train students in full gear and perform as they would on a real fire. Computer-based training checks a lot of boxes for the Insurance Services Office ratings and undoubtedly has its place. But if you care about your firefighters, repetition on the drill ground will be the life vest that keeps them afloat when they find themselves drowning in the flood of a rapidly evolving incident.

(2) Here, I toss a “baby” to a firefighter during search multiple company training. (Photo by Firefighter Emily Nicoara.)


“Action always beats intention.” In life and death instances, this couldn’t be more accurate. Action is where the rubber meets the road, where the cognitive becomes the physical. You can’t delay action once you have made the decision.

Speed of action can be directly attributed to mastery of skill. You can build a flawless slide tray of knowing when is the right time to bail out of a window, but if you haven’t mastered the actual hard skill, hesitation and miscalculation will likely show up in your performance.

John Grinder created a hierarchy of skill acquisition, with the highest level (the fourth level) being unconscious competence.1 Unconscious competence is the ability to perform a skill without having to think through the steps in your mind. All SWAT members must perform all weapons skills with an unconscious competence and with gross, not fine, motor skills. A firefighter should not have to think of the emergency sequence for a self-contained breathing apparatus malfunction or what the “U” stands for in LUNAR.

(3) SWAT operators train in sniper-initiated vehicle assaults. (Photo by author.)

The repetitions required for mastery vary widely, depending on the source; some number repetitions in the thousands. For most of our skills, this is not a readily achievable number. Nevertheless, we must not be dizzied by the number of repetitions required to master a skill. Instead we need to focus on the fact that one more repetition today will increase the speed and function of my ability to act tomorrow.

Basic Skills Mark the Pro

A saying in the SWAT world is, “SWAT is like Disneyland: a long line for a short ride.” This is equally true in the fire service. We spend a considerable amount of time preparing for incidents that don’t occur often. As fires continue to decrease in number but increase in spread and potential for trapped victims, we must continue to place a high value on the “long line”—i.e., hard skills training.

For decades, the military and law enforcement have been training on and using the OODA loop concept. Leaders recognize its usefulness from low-risk strategic decision making all the way to air-to-air and ground combat. Across the United States, thousands of SWAT officers use the OODA loop to make rapid life or death decisions every day. Intuitively, many firefighters make decisions in a similar way. The better we understand these concepts, the better we can adjust our training to implement the soft skills as well as the hard skills associated with the OODA loop.

When you are building your next company level or department training, consider adding these elements to your students’ decision-making training: visual stimuli that require increased observation and unusual/unexpected/uncommon situations that will interrupt and make them move through their OODA loop. Evaluate their decision-making skills. Are they detaching and not getting tunnel vision? Are they prioritizing and executing decisions in the appropriate order? Are they performing the skills associated with their actions at an unconscious competence level?

Hopefully, these lessons learned from our elite SWAT teams and our military will make you and your students better prepared for the rapidly evolving incidents we face as firefighters.


1. Murray, KR. (2006) Training at the Speed of Life, Vol. 1. Armiger Publications Inc., Gotha, Florida.

2. Osinga, F. (2005) Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. Eburon Academic Publishers.

3. Glick-Smith, J L (2016). Flow Based Leadership. Technics Publications. Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

Ryan Scellick is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and a captain. He spent five years as a commissioned SWAT officer and tactical medic. He is finishing degrees in fire administration and psychology at Eastern Oregon University.

No posts to display