Lt. David Swords: What’s At Stake?

Lieutenant David Swords (ret.) is a thirty year veteran of the Springfield, Ohio Police Department. Nearly half of Lt. Swords’ police career was spent as an investigator, working on cases ranging from simple vandalisms to armed robberies and murders.

What’s At Stake?

Recently, results were released of an investigation into details surrounding the New Year’s Day shooting death of a local deputy sheriff. Part of the information released involved a time line of events, which started me thinking about those few minutes when an officer responds to an emergency situation, usually never knowing exactly what is going on, except that someone is in dire need of help.

A few years ago, I read a novel that was written by an author who writes murder mysteries and is, admittedly, a very successful author. Early in the book the protagonist, a deputy sheriff, is responding to an active school shooting. This portion of the story only lasted a few pages, but I remember thinking at the time that the author, as good a writer as they may be, just didn’t understand what went on in a police car in those few tense and highly emotional minutes when an officer responds to a violent, fluid and largely unknown situation. It didn’t ruin the story for me, but I believe it tainted my view of the heroine’s actions from that point forward.

I realize that authenticity must sometimes be sacrificed for story, but I also believe that the more authentic a story is, the more believable, and therefore the more enjoyable, it will be.

When an officer responds to an active shooter call, they have one primary concern. That is to get to the scene and stop the person doing the shooting. No one is going to take that time to tell the dispatcher to call crime scene personnel (a major flaw of the story I referred to) or to contact someone to draw up a search warrant or call detectives. Those are all things that can be done once the scene is secured. Once the suspect has been stopped or has fled the scene.

Officers want any updates the dispatcher can give as to suspect description and location. Dispatchers try their best to get that information to the officers on the street but are rarely able to give accurate information, largely due to the hysteria they encounter from callers.

The amount of information the dispatcher is able to give can vary from a detailed description of the suspect’s appearance and actions to, “report of a person shot, no other information.” I remember one triple shooting I responded to at 3 a.m. many years ago in which the caller was able to identify her assailant by name, since it was her brother. But that was little help to us, since she could not tell the dispatcher if he was still in the house, what he was wearing, or what type of car he may be driving

Often, the information given is inaccurate because the caller is excited or just sees things that are not there. I can think of at least two separate occasions when we were hunting certain vehicles that had fled shooting scenes. When my partner and I stopped the vehicles, it wasn’t just because the cars we stopped matched the descriptions broadcast (they were similar, though different colors) but also because of where they were when we spotted them. The cars were just about where they should be if they fled the scene in our direction. An officer responding to a call in which a suspect has fled tries to think about the time that has expired, how much time the dispatcher may have taken to the call broadcast and what route a car (or suspect fleeing on foot) may have taken to get away from the scene. Of course, all of this is going through officer’s minds while they are listening for radio updates, listening for other units responding and where they might be coming from, plotting out one’s logical response route, and watching for other traffic that won’t get out of the way despite the lights and siren response.

So, when writing about officers responding to emergency calls, don’t be too concerned about your officer rattling off a list of instructions to the dispatcher to call this person or that agency. Remember, their primary concern is to get to the scene and stop the bad guy from doing what he is doing or too catch him as he is fleeing the area. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

Finally, I have always felt that the books I love the most are those that can stir my emotions as I read. When you are reading in your favorite chair in the safety of your home and you suddenly realize that you feel tension or sorrow or fear because of what you are reading, you know you are holding a good book.

Tension is high when an officer responds to an emergency call, especially one involving another officer in trouble or an active shooter. Perhaps the hardest part about writing such a scene is to capture that tension. As I was preparing this post, I tried to find recordings on the Internet of officers calling for help so that you could listen while reading. At the YouTube website, I found many such calls. In fact, there were too many from which to choose. I would suggest that any time you want to write a scene involving officers in a dangerous situation that you go to YouTube or a comparable website and listen to some of the emergency radio calls. You will probably feel a chill, as I did, when you listen to some of these calls and realize what was at stake. If you are able to tell your story and cause your reader to feel that same chill, then you will have accomplished a great piece of work.

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Friday’s Heroes: Remembering The Fallen

The Graveyard Shift extends our condolences to the families of these brave officers.

Officer Andrew Garton, 44

Hawthorne California Police Department

May 26, 2011 – Officer Andrew Garton was killed in a motorcycle accident while escorting a funeral of a fellow police officer. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Officer Trevor Scott Phillips, 42

Tuscaloosa Alabama Police Department

May 21, 2011 – Officer Trevor Phillips was killed in a motorcycle accident while escorting a funeral.

Trooper First Class Shaft S. Hunter, 39

Maryland State Police

Trooper Shaft Hunter was killed when his patrol car collided with the back of a tractor trailer during the pursuit of a fleeing motorcyclist.He is survived by his wife and six children.


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Firefighter Joe Collins: Breathing Fire


I’m a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in our county. I hold numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. My day job is as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa.

Breathing Fire

In the old days of firefighting, firefighters rarely entered a burning building as the environment was hot, smoky and filled with dangerous gases that could kill immediately or slowly—over years and why many of those old firefighters are dead from cancer.

SCBA—Self Contained Breathing Apparatus has evolved over the years into equipment that can protect a firefighter in IDLH (Immediate Danger to Life and Health) Atmospheres. Note, these aren’t rated for use in deep water like SCUBA.

An important fact that is gotten wrong by many writers and reporters is that the bottles used in SCBA don’t contain pure oxygen, but the same air that you breathe—though filtered. Oxygen is an accelerant and if there was a leak, it would be like having a flame thrower on your back.

The typical SCBA is comprised of several components starting with the air bottle. The old air bottles were made of steel and rarely could take a pressure of more than 2300 PSI, so they didn’t provide as much time in a fire. They were also quite heavy.

old bottle

Modern bottles are constructed of aluminum covered with spun fiberglass or carbon fiber and are filled to pressures of 4,500 PSI. In theory, that means that you can breathe for forty-five minutes in a fire—which never happens even under ideal conditions.

scba bottle

Since you can’t breathe air at 4,500 PSI, so there are two regulators, the first stage to reduce the pressure of air to allow it to be used by the mask, and a second stage to reduce it to a level just above atmospheric pressure.


Air is delivered to the mask via a demand valve—which means that they are activated by inhalation. A safety feature is that if your mask seal against your face is broken, it will provide continuous positive pressure—providing constant airflow to keep smoke and other dangerous gases out of the mask.


This is an SCBA. Ours are made by MSA, but there are several manufacturers.


What you see here is a a combined PASS device along with an air gauge. Various alarms, from bells to buzzers mean that you have less than ten-minutes of air remaining and better get out of the fire.


A PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used primarily by firefighters which sounds a loud audible alert notifying others in the area that a firefighter is in trouble. The PASS device will automatically activate if the device does not detect motion for a certain short time, typically 15-30 seconds, so that the alert will sound if the firefighter is seriously injured or otherwise incapacitated. They are loud, at least 95-decibels and can be manually activated by the firefighter if they get into trouble.

Our masks have a display which shows the remaining air. Some SCBA even have remote monitoring—each firefighter’s air status and other information can be monitored from outside the building.

Mask Display

scba mask

Many of the seats in fire apparatus have SCBA holders built into them. You sit on the seat, put on your safety belt and can slip on your air pack and other equipment. When you arrive on a fire scene, you pull a cord to release the SCBA.

911 Seat

Extra air packs and bottles are stored in various places all throughout the apparatus. When a firefighter comes out from the fire, they can, generally in less than a minute, change out their air bottle for a full one and the empty ones refilled.

Extra Bottles

Stowed SCBA

SCBA bottles are filled using a cascade system. There is one on our Engine 1, as you can see here. There are three six-thousand PSI tanks. How a cascade system works and is used is for another article.

E1 Cascade

There is no air compressor on the engine, so those air bottles are filled from a cascade system in the fire station that does have an air compressor. The yellow cylinder that you see in both pictures holds the bottles while they are being filled, to provide protection if the bottle ruptures.

Cascade Compressor

SCBA systems typically weigh about 25 lbs and start at about $1,500 and can easily go above $7,000. This means that a firefighter, full outfitted, when they step of the apparatus, ready to fight the fire, is wearing upwards of 60 lbs of gear costing up to or over $10,000.


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Want to learn more about firefighters and firefighting equipment? The Writers’ Police Academy features an on-site, working fire station. You’ll have to opportunity to see, touch, and try on the gear!



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