Critical Incident Response – Are Security Personnel Capable?

Boston Marathon bombingThere have been several recent international events involving incidents of terrorism; the Boston Marathon bombing and the public killing of a British soldier being two relevant examples. Both occurred in broad daylight, both involved numerous members of the public (either as victims or witnesses), and both could conceivably occur in Australia in environments and circumstances that the average security officer could be responsible for.

Many security personnel may have watched reports of the soldier killed in London and said “If that happened on my watch I would have intervened”. While that sentiment is certainly a noble one that is common to true public safety personnel, is it realistic? The offenders ambushed the soldier by driving into him with their car and then attacked with edged weapons in plain view of the public. Why did no-one intervene? Most likely because they were shocked at the immediacy and proximity of the event and the brutal reality of violence. This is when their self-preservation instinct overrode their desire to assist the victim. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing there was chaos, fear, panic, injured people, damaged property, numerous people trying to assist and many others wandering around in a daze.

So, is a security officer equipped to manage incidents such as these? The simple answer is… Yes!

To conduct their duties professionally and efficiently, security personnel should understand two things:

  • What their job function IS (and what it is NOT)
  • How their job function relates to other key services.

The Private Security Act 2004 defines the principal role of the two most common security activities: a security guard protects/watches/guards property, a crowd controller maintains order in public places. The primary aim of both roles is prevention – deter, detect and report (may also include management of incidents within defined roles until passing to external assistance) – and limit the ‘opportunity’ to commit an act (motive and means being beyond control). This entails being vigilant, knowing workplace procedures and the environment, and operating professionally within these.

Security personnel are not police, nor are they fire brigade, or paramedics, or tactical response units, or counter-terrorism operators. However, their job function may intersect with any of these roles in an emergency situation. Therefore, security need to understand the extent of their operational parameters, and when and how to work in conjunction with support agencies.

In critical incidents such as the two examples listed above, security personnel are likely to be the first responders on scene before other emergency services arrive based simply on their numbers and location in society’s infrastructure. The issue is not so much whether security personnel can manage a critical incident based on their job function, but whether each person is capable of dealing with the reality of this type of situation based on their personal readiness and mindset.


A critical incident is a realistic operational possibility, but since it is difficult to identify with the level of threat incurred, officers often under-react for a number of reasons:

  • failure to be mentally prepared
  • failure to understand the dynamics of critical incidents
  • failure to be confident and familiar with their procedures.

Since a critical incident may rarely occur, it is difficult to remain vigilant day-in and day-out. However, there may come a time when they need to act in the defense of their life or the life others. If the officer finds themselves in a critical incident, they must be prepared. Post-incident analysis shows that in most scenarios, situations develop under circumstances that are less than ideal and not in a way officers typically expected. The best way to prepare for such an encounter is to condition the mind and body in a manner that is consistent with job performance expectations.

Officers should prepare in advance by thinking “When I am in a critical incident…” not “If I am in a critical incident…”, and formulate a plan before an incident occurs. This is called crisis rehearsal. Visualise the incident and evaluate possible risks and opportunities. Live the experience in the mind’s eye … see the picture, hear the sounds, feel the emotions, mentally rehearse the event, and always see oneself prevailing with a positive outcome.

Officers who respond ineffectively in critical incidents may have performed better if they:

  • understood the dynamics of critical incidents
  • properly evaluated the risks they were facing
  • planned what to do in the event of a deadly threat
  • mastered appropriate response strategies and tactics.

Mental preparation enables officers to become familiar with the look and feel of a critical incident and consequently defuse the stress and shock. Mental rehearsal creates a learned response in the mind so that under pressure, the subconscious will guide the physical actions. Without proper preparation, the offender holds all the cards, leaving the officer relying on luck.

Threat Assessment

The root of the word intuition is tuere, which means ‘to guard, to protect’. Intuition allows us to accurately predict events, yet in modern society people ignore and disregard the important information it provides. There are several reasons why this occurs.

People are built to see what they want to see; reality is in the brain before it is experienced or else visual signals would make no sense. Predictive skills are not developed because in the modern world experts tell us what to do every day, bombarding us with signals that may or may not be true, and people worship hindsight rather than trust foresight, which might actually help them.

Security personnel must learn to listen to their intuition. The simple truth is that intuition is rarely, if ever, wrong. Information is perceived through the senses, consciously and subconsciously, telling us that something is amiss, out of place, not right. The mental energy used searching for innocent explanations could more constructively be applied to evaluating the environment. Learning to trust this vital survival tool can allow officers to analyse and interpret their environment, including the behaviour of people in the vicinity, to a high degree of accuracy.

Accurate assessment of potential risks is vital to responding in an effective and timely manner. In the absence of appropriate strategies, officers are vulnerable. Officers must be able to transition from a relaxed to a combat mindset. Effective management entails accurate threat assessment and appropriate action.




Oblivious to surroundings; vulnerable



Relaxed awareness; vigilant



Aware of something (potentially) wrong; alert



Threat identification and reaction; plan



Employ strategies and tactics; react



The behaviour and mindset of the offender determines the threat they pose to officers during a situation. A person that appears cooperative should be managed politely, but officers should always remain alert for them to become potentially uncooperative. Cooperation may be a strategy to entice officers into a false sense of security.





Complies with commands and requests




Undecided as to how they will respond

May be passive but could become aggressive



Will not comply with commands and requests


Critical incidents will likely take officers by surprise and as such they will be in a reactionary state. If officers are properly prepared for the reality of the operational environment, their confidence and assertiveness will increase. Operational decisions are based on training and experience, so regular training that is realistic and appropriate is important to minimise the response time necessary to successfully manage critical incidents.

Autonomic Reactions

The stress response is a biological adaptation to a perceived threat where the body prepares to fight or flee to survive. Critical incidents will be stressful and everyone involved will be experiencing stress, though reactions vary between people. To overcome adverse reactions, correct preparation is essential. Officers should accept that they will experience stress but that they can still perform during critical incidents.

Fear and pain are positive instincts designed to assist us to survive. Fear is an instinct that something is not normal in the external environment, and pain shows there is something not normal internally within our bodies. However, pain can exist without ‘suffering’, the negative mental state created in response to pain. Likewise, worry is the negative emotion manufactured and attached to fear. Worry will not bring solutions but will likely distract officers from responding appropriately, so acknowledge the reality of fear and pain but eliminate the distraction of worry, suffering and self-pity.

Autogenic Breathing (square/tactical/stress) entails conscious and deliberate control of breathing, which reduces heart rate to make rational thinking easier and facilitate better physical control.

The basic process is:

  • inhale through the nose (4 count)
  • natural pause (4 count)
  • exhale through the mouth (4 count)
  • natural pause (4 count)

In stressful situations such as critical incidents, consciously control breathing, recognise stress reactions (physical and emotional), and adapt rather than fight against them. Train realistically and use crisis rehearsal techniques regularly.

Post-Incident Management

Psychological trauma is caused by experiencing an event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and leaves them fearful. Traumatic events do not discriminate – all people are at risk for experiencing traumatic events. It can result from a single traumatic event or include responses to repetitive stressful experiences.

Officers involved in a critical incident will experience a myriad of emotions. The immediate after effects of a critical incident can include:

  • Doubt – concern that the officer was justified and operated within correct parameters
  • Denial – refusing to concede the incident actually happened
  • Self-questioning – questioning personal morals and ethics
  • Fear – for the officer’s future, family, opinion of colleagues, society, etc
  • Grief – remorse over actions and outcomes.

However, not all people who experience a traumatic event will become psychologically traumatised. Many factors influence this, such as a person’s life experiences before the trauma, a person’s ability to cope with stress, how severe the trauma was, and what kind of support the person gets immediately following the trauma. Research shows that people who cope better with trauma are those who had realistic expectations of potential risks prior to the event. Positive coping actions help reduce anxiety or other reactions and improve the situation in a way that does not harm the survivor further.

Officers have the operational strategies to manage critical incidents should they occur. They should know their workplace procedures and parameters, set a standard of professional excellence, and keep it simple … do their job as a security operative, but do it well.

Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail. Remain ever vigilant!

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.