It was late July and the lead story on all the local news stations was the record setting heat and humidity predicted for the day. There was a health advisory warning against any outdoor activity. We started the day out on the range with an hour of PT (physical training) and then jumped right into some shooting drills in full gear. I drank a gallon of liquids before lunch. Our team paramedic was on hand in case anyone needed to be hooked up with some IV Fluids. We had to train… it was our SWAT training day.
Not all SWAT training is physical but this article will focus on some of the physical aspects. Some training involves rapid movements that I wouldn’t really consider exertive. We may be practicing various shooting drills out on a range or in a shoot house. We also spend a lot of time practicing building entries and room clearing drills using safe weapons, or force on force training using simunitions (paintball on steroids.) Often we’ll make use of a building scheduled to be torn down and the team will treat it as the target of a high risk search warrant. We’ll then go through the entire process of planning and executing the mission.
A Typical SWAT Training Day
Our training day generally starts off with some calisthenics and stretching. My team likes to form a big circle with the instructor in the middle. We then go for a team run that starts out slow with someone calling cadence and most likely concludes with sprints or hill runs. Occasionally we’ll have access to a tall building and we’ll run the stairs. We’ve gotten away from the three to five mile runs in favor of a train-like-you-fight mindset. After PT we’ll jump right into the day’s main focus of training.
Sometimes we go through self defense drills in full SWAT gear. This is very unique training for the fact that we’re practicing blocks and throwing strikes encumbered by heavy tactical vests and ballistic helmets, all the while holding a handgun or longarm. The reason behind this training is that many times we’ll encounter a person, who is unarmed, but assaultive or non compliant. We’ll then need to put aside deadly force to physically deal with this person.
We often combine physical exercise with shooting drills to simulate possible real world SWAT situations. Shooting drills are always done in full gear. Most guys are carrying about 50 lbs over bodyweight. Anytime we’re geared up everything is a little more laborious but once again, “we train as we fight” and during training is the time to discover and resolve any problems related to operating in our equipment. Even in cool weather it doesn’t take much effort before we start sweating. If we’re training or on an extended mission, during the summer months, we sweat profusely to the point that after the day is done, we need to set our heavy vests out to dry.
On a team full of type A guys everyone is competitive. We’ll use this for added stress in some of our shooting drills by forming various competitions. We may form a line whereas each man is shooting up close on their own target. Anyone that misses steps out of the line. We then step back five yards and shoot again. We continue moving back until there’s only one man still standing. We could also form small relay teams where each man must complete a physical task, like a sprint and pushups, before scoring the required number of hits on a target. He then runs back and tags in the next man on his relay team. The team that finishes first owns the bragging rights.
If we were preparing for a SWAT competition the training really intensifies. About ten of us would meet each week and just concentrate on very physical training and shooting drills. Our physical training is designed to be very functional and prepare us for what we may face on a SWAT mission. The SWAT competition events are also designed this way. We work with unbalanced loads such as sandbags, logs, heavy chains and truck tires. We may use heavy drag dummies or carry each other in various manners. We practice climbing multiple height walls and fences. Climbing ropes are also a great test of upper body and grip strength. We run over uneven ground, in full gear, carrying our weapons or heavy objects. Sometimes we’ll train wearing our gasmasks because it makes it more difficult to breathe and competitions often require masks at various stages.
Our SWAT tryout is one of the most difficult of any team I know. Undoubtedly, we’ve lost some good candidates because they fell just short on one of our standards, but we refuse to lower the bar for anyone. We hold tryouts once a year and the entire team is involved in this important day. Every candidate is closely monitored and above all else, we’re looking for any sign of weakness or quitting. If a candidate gives up during the tryout the team can’t depend on him when it really matters. I recall one candidate who was just a couple of feet short of climbing to the top of the rope. He was spent and couldn’t pull himself up any further. His response to yells of encouragement was to yell back “I can’t.” At that very moment the entire team disregarded him as a viable candidate.
The tryout consists of a series of calisthenics, a timed run, an obstacle course and two stress shooting courses. We generally have about a 50% failure rate. If a candidate fails but the team believes he has the right stuff, we encourage him to come back at the next tryout.
Not Everyone Can Be Special
The national SWAT team standards state that a team must have a formal tryout process and train 16 hours per month, plus a full 40 hour week each year of advanced SWAT team training.
Unfortunately, not all SWAT teams are created equal and conform to these standards. Elite special Ops teams like the Navy Seals are elite for good reasons. Likewise, I believe a SWAT patch should be earned and not just handed out in some good ol’boy network. There are still teams out there with no real tryout process or physical standards and this creates a recipe for disaster.
SWAT operators should have a high level of physical fitness. They should posses a combination of strength, speed and agility. We carry a lot of extra weight and we may be called upon to run down the block, climb over a fence, ascend three flights of stairs, ram a door and then possibly make a precision shot. Operators also need the endurance to maintain a high level of combat readiness during an extended mission. We’ve been on missions with seemingly no end, including a 20 hour mission in Watertown, MA following a long week after the Boston Marathon bombing.
It’s Only A Movie
I’m no fan of the movie SWAT, with Samuel L. Jackson but I did enjoy one of his lines. He said “When the citizens are in trouble they call the police but when the police are in trouble they call SWAT.”
About the Author
Jim Vaglica is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Team Labrada Athlete, Jim competed on the Reality TV shows American Grit, hosted by John Cena, and Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible. He is a Police Sergeant with 16 yrs on SWAT and the Owner of JimVaglica.com