BULLSEYE: Hosting a SWAT Competition
By Warren Wilson
When It’s Your Department’s Turn to be in Charge
The sense of dread was overwhelming. I looked down at the mud on the knees of my camouflage fatigues and I wondered how I’d gotten my thigh rig so dirty during the excitement. I peeked up at our SWAT team’s young operators with stunned silence as they celebrated and congratulated each other over our win. “Fools,” I mumbled to myself, “they have no idea what we’ve done.”
As a team leader, it was my responsibility to make sure this never happened. It had to be a bad dream, but it wasn’t. It really happened; our team had won the 2011 Oklahoma SWAT Competition. We’d consistently placed between second and fifth the previous six years, but this time we’d taken top honors.
I was melancholy because the winning team is responsible for hosting the following year’s competition. It’s a gargantuan undertaking and I knew I’d be tasked as the event coordinator. In the past, the bigger departments (read: bigger teams with bigger resources) in the state won and hosted. They’d set the standard with their competitions and we didn’t have the same resources or facilities. If only there had been some kind of guide at the time. The following is a guide as to how we handled it.
The first step in hosting a SWAT (or any type of firearms) competition is general organization. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a raid or a parade; preparation is the difference between success and failure. A competition should be handled like any other special assignment: with a solid plan. Also, never be afraid of delegation. It’s just too much for one person to handle and the more people you have contributing, the more ideas you will have from which to draw.
Someone will have to design a logo for the challenge coins and T-shirts. That may sound easier than it is. It should appeal to everyone from patrolman to chief. Police administrators generally don’t like being associated with pictures of flaming skulls and most cops I know avoid wearing rainbow-colored unicorn T-shirts. Shoot for somewhere in the middle. The larger T-shirt companies will do most of the heavy lifting in designing a logo via e-mail or telephone and may even send you a banner with the logo on it if the order is large enough. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have the same person or team responsible for the logo and the T-shirts.
Don’t forget to get the local media involved. Try to release a story prior to the event as well as one after your competition is over.
Decide how many and what kind of courses you will have. Tactical competitions, pistol, carbine, sniper, obstacle and hostage rescue courses are common. Some of the teams more experienced in hosting competitions might develop complicated three-gun courses, but it’s best to stick to the old K.I.S.S. principle and keep it simple your first time out. Assign the people best suited to develop their respective courses. The snipers should design the long-range rifle course; the sadistic fitness gurus should design the obstacle course, and so on. When they’re finished with their designs, they can present a list of resources needed to complete the courses.
Distribute agendas and maps to the competitors who will assist in getting them to your facility. That’s just one less thing that can go wrong on the day of the event. Make sure they have detailed course instructions so they know what equipment they’ll need to bring.
Dollars and Cents
Herein begins the real challenge. Evaluate the resources of your department because an event like this will cost money. There will have to be prizes, food, props, targets, trophies, and the previously mentioned challenge coins, T-shirts, etc. Charging teams an entrance fee can help, but with a standard of around $100.00 per team, it won’t offset much. Selling shirts and coins during the competition can help make up some of the costs, but the up-front expenses still need to be secured.
Is there a special fund that can be tapped? Possibly, but police budgets aren’t exactly bursting with discretionary funds these days. This is where your community comes into play. A large collection of small donations from local businesses can actually carry the entire project. Be sure to solicit the sponsors as early as possible. Many businesses have set budgets for donations and your department will want to be at the top of the list.
Holding a Sponsor Appreciation Day before the actual competition can be very helpful in encouraging donations. Your average businessperson might be more willing to part with some cash or product if it means a day of flash bang demonstrations, submachine gun training, and some really well-made burgers. Of course, this is a separate event and must be supervised by experienced officers who can ensure the safety of the participants. Offer to hang the sponsors’ banners around the facility the day of the competition and make sure they’re being mentioned in any media coverage leading up to the event.
The first thing to consider spending money on is the acquisition of trophies. A statue for the overall winning team and trophies for each event are expected by your participants, at the very minimum. Additional prizes for winners and runners-up are common. Vendors and sponsors can donate knives, shooting mats, BDUs, holsters, ammunition, and even firearms for those individual and team competitors who place and show. A hint with the firearm prizes: Just ask the vendor/sponsor to provide a gift certificate for the gun and let the winner go to the shop to complete the required paperwork. That way there is no concern about a “straw purchase.” T-shirts will be the most popular item overall, so be sure to have plenty in all sizes. Giving away challenge coins memorializing the event to competitors and the VIP sponsors and vendors is also guaranteed to be a hit.
Another consideration is your department’s facility. Do you already have a range set up for a competition? How many people do you anticipate attending among competitors, brass, vendors, sponsors and volunteers? Is there sufficient space for the courses and a staging area with a public address system? Everyone designing a course will need to keep within the allotted space. The event coordinator will need to be responsible for dividing up those areas.
There must also be sufficient room for parking. Frankly, without appropriate parking, the event can be a failure before it even begins. Participants will be lugging a lot of equipment, probably in large vehicles and trailers. Figure on space for at least three portable toilets per 100 visitors. It will take a lot of manpower for those departments that don’t already have elaborate facilities to construct their courses. It cuts into SWAT practice time, and operators will have to become painters, lawn care professionals, and carpenters for a while. Doing the work utilizing your own manpower is the most cost-effective route, but may not always be possible. Heavy machinery and properly trained operators will be needed to build shooting berms, parking areas or (as occurred in our case) a concrete dividing wall to separate the pistol and carbine courses. If given sufficient notice, public works or other departments may be able to assist you with the larger projects.
The Big Day
Schedule the check-in period with enough leeway to account for the inevitable stragglers. Conduct the course walk-throughs and safety briefings. Ask the participating teams to assign one person to each course walk-through so you won’t end up with too large of a crowd. That person, in turn, will brief his/her own team. When the courses begin (hopefully on schedule), try to have planned for contingencies. Teams may run out of targets. Props may break. You may even have a medical issue. One of our team’s operators suffered a serious knee injury during a previous year’s competition. Thankfully, the host team thought ahead and had medical personnel standing by during their event.
It’s pretty obvious that lunch will be the most important consideration of the day. I recommend being married to the supervisor of a local restaurant franchise. That person will be able to organize the food and other volunteers to guarantee a smooth meal period. If one does not have such a luxury, an administrator can probably handle the assignment.
After all the events are done and the scores have been tallied, gather everyone at the staging area. Publicly thank your sponsors, vendors, volunteers, administration and whoever else assisted with the event. This must be done before prizes and trophies are distributed or there will not be an audience for it. Brevity will be appreciated as many, if not most, competitors will still have to travel home. Be sure to also thank all of your competitors, especially those who didn’t win or receive a trophy.
Hosting a competition at your department can take a lot of time and resources, but the benefits far outweigh the hard work and cost. Strong relationships will be built with other law enforcement agencies and members of the community. The department’s range equipment and appearance will undoubtedly result in upgrading. The positive media attention certainly can never hurt and it’s another opportunity for your community to see the police in a positive light. Most importantly, the host team will have a shared experience that will better prepare them for their next win. PM
Warren Wilson is a Lieutenant with a municipal police department in Oklahoma. He is a SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for over 17 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.