FOREFRONT: Ambush Awareness


Mental preparation and having the needed tools are necessary for maintaining ambush awareness.
By Chief Mike Burg, Rittman, Ohio Police Department
“One of the best ways to keep peace is to be prepared for war.”

–General George Washington

The ambush is nothing new; in fact, while researching this article, I learned evidence indicates that early humans used ambush techniques to hunt large game. It’s not a new threat to law enforcement either; however, it seems to be making a strong resurgence as of late.

While there may not be a great deal that officers can do to prevent an ambush attack, there are means by which officers can foil a potential ambush. I’m not suggesting that officers live their lives in “condition orange” but, at minimum, based on their occupation, we do need to live our lives in “condition yellow.”

As human beings we are, by nature, creatures of habit. We find a functional, comfortable routine and we live it, day in and day out. We get in the same car; we drive the same route to work and, regardless of the size of the parking lot, park in the same space. We walk in and out of the same door every day at about the same time; and that’s only one example from our daily life. We’re all guilty of it, me included. Officers need to live in a state in between preparation and paranoia, we need to be aware and prepared, but we can’t live our lives in constant fear.

If you’ve been an officer for more than a couple of years, you’ve developed the “sixth sense.” Trust your gut…if something doesn’t feel right or appear right, it probably isn’t. This doesn’t apply just to your on-duty time, but to your off-duty time as well. Don’t underestimate today’s criminal element; they are smart, they do their homework. The Internet, as great of a tool as it is, has made a small world even smaller, as you can find out a great deal about someone by just looking around the Internet. Not long ago, a man in London was plotting a terrorist attack and was arrested; in his car was the home address of Great Britain’s Prime Minister!

It’s even easier if, like most of us, you work in a small city. People know where you live, where your spouse works, where your kids go to school, and where you frequently shop. Remember the intent of the ambush is to catch you off guard, when you are the most vulnerable.

Criminals have used diversion tactics to have police respond to fake calls while they committed crimes some distance away in the opposite direction. These tactics can also be used to lure you into an ambush situation. Think about the call as you respond. Remember, NOTHING is “routine” in our business.

With the increase in homegrown terrorism, no officer, big city to small village, is immune from the threat of an ambush attack. We are targets intended to make a statement. If “they” can ambush us (the ones who keep you safe), imagine what they can do to the populace at large; it’s an effective statement. The so-called “lone wolf” is a constant threat to all of us—both law enforcement and citizen.

Keep in mind the words of Robert Jordan who said, “A crafty enemy will set a weak ambush you are meant to break through. Confident because you have dealt with the threat, your guard relaxed, you walk into the second, stronger ambush.”

While the element of surprise will be on the side of the one(s) perpetrating the ambush, putting you on the defensive, I suggest three ways in which you could possibly avoid or deter an ambush attack.

First of all, know your surroundings and be aware. Periods of relaxing and daydreaming are gone. I’m not going to suggest that you vary your routine, drive different routes to and from work, or change other aspects of your life. While I agree that these are effective, they don’t last, I know…I tried. We instinctively revert back into our comfort zone and again become those creatures of habit. In fact, being in familiar areas and vehicles may actually assist you in getting out of an ambush. If you are attacked in an area in which you are familiar, you may know avenues of escape that you wouldn’t know in another area. Maintain a heightened awareness.

Second, stay armed and have extra ammunition and encourage other officers to do the same. Being armed on- and off-duty is a bonus for police officers—use it to our advantage. There are some good compact weapons out there, get one and be proficient with it. A spare magazine takes up little room in a pocket and could make a big difference.

Last, have some self-rescue equipment in all of your vehicles and know how to use it. Teach your family how to use it as well. I’m not saying turn your family into paramedics, but the basics are essential. If you are the victim of an ambush and you survived, but either you or a family member perhaps were still wounded during the incident, having what’s needed to treat a wound during your escape is essential.
Mental preparation is necessary for surviving an ambush and having the proper tools to deal with one is, too. In this day and age of anti-police violence and national terrorism, condition yellow is mandatory. PM.

Mike Burg is a 37-year veteran of the Rittman, Ohio Police Department; a graduate of the FBI National Academy; former SWAT team leader; and an author.


  1. A smaller off-duty firearm with a spare magazine and other essentials for constant carry.
  2. Access to a first-aid kit and other items may make the difference between surviving an ambush or losing to it.

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