In some police departments it is standard practice for the first arriving officer on-scene to deploy independently. Oftentimes these officers are highly trained, highly motivated and action oriented. What they are lacking is coordination of their efforts. The potential problem with independent action is it may be unrealistic to think multiple individuals can arrive at varied times and make the same assessment of the situation/conditions and know, automatically, what other officers are doing and the goals they are trying to accomplish. This can cause problems with team and incident situational awareness.


A Play Book

It is important for police officers to have a shared understanding of each member’s role during high risk operations. This complicated task may be easier to accomplish when everyone is trained to a common set of procedures. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs) can help ensure members understand the performance expectations. Unfortunately, some organizations do not have SOPs or SOGs – they have no playbook. A lack of written Standards does not automatically spell trouble for police officers but it is a contributing factor in many casualty investigations.



As important as having a play book, practicing the plays is equally important. If an organization has written Standards but does not train personnel on how to perform coordinated actions based on the Standards the incident operations are likely to be disjointed and confusing. It cannot be assumed that writing and distributing Standards is going to result in a common understanding of their meaning or a well-coordinated operation.


Coordinated Actions

In addition to having a playbook and practicing, it is important (and sometimes overlooked) that police officers still need to be coordinated. Complex and dynamically changing incidents are commonplace. Incident circumstances often require actions that cannot follow written Standards. The more unique the problem, the greater the likelihood for resilient problem solving. Professional football teams have play books and they practice those plays to perfect their coordination repetitively. Yet teams still have coaches and coordinators to ensure the members perform in a coordinated way.


To ensure team success, be that a sports team or an emergency response team, someone needs to establish and maintain a big picture view of the field/incident right from the beginning and coordinate the actions of all the participants. This is especially important for police officers because the participants almost always arrive in a staggered fashion. This is unlike a sporting event where the team members are all present from the start and it’s easier for the coach to coordinate the actions. Absent someone to coordinate actions, an incident can degrade as the independent, uncoordinated actions of police officers fail to achieve a common goal. The situational awareness at an incident is dependent on the coordinated actions of each team member.


Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

Develop standard operating procedures/guidelines. Practice them as teams, in context to how the team members will perform in realistic environments. Ensure one of the first arriving police officers assumes the role of incident commander and coordinates the activities of other police officers. The person in charge should maintain a “big picture” view of the incident.

As soon as possible, however, someone needs to assume a role as the coordinator of other incoming personnel. This is where the coordinator can pay-off in spades by ensuring all the essential tasks are being assigned and coordinated.


Action Items

  1. Discuss the challenges that can arise from engaging in independent actions without coordination.


  1. Discuss an incident where independent actions challenged incident coordination and impacted situational awareness of incident personnel.


  1. Discuss ideas for how to improve team situational awareness and multiple police officer coordination at dynamically changing incidents.



Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].