As the province's police force, the Saskatchewan RCMP must be ever-ready to respond to all types of incidents. When the most dangerous situations unfold, our Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) – a group of highly-trained police officers – will be there.
"These officers work very cohesively in a team atmosphere during very high-stress, fast-paced situations," says Insp. Devin Pugh, a critical incident commander who oversees CIRT responses. "Each of the components has different skillsets and attributes, but when you put them all together, we have the ability to resolve situations in the most peaceful and safe way possible."
'Our goal is always to resolve the situation'
At the centre of any critical incident is a person in crisis. This may be someone who is threatening self-harm. This may be someone who has taken hostages or is making violent threats against the public or police officers. Whatever the situation, a CIRT crisis negotiator is usually the first to make contact with that person – and their goal is to make a connection. "What we're doing is trying to establish a rapport and a sense of understanding," explains S/Sgt. Tim Schwartz, one of the CIRT's long-time crisis negotiators. "We have empathy. We're trying to view their situation from their lens and what they are thinking. That connection and that knowledge is the first step in allowing us to resolve the crisis safely."
"Our goal is always to resolve the situation without any tactical response," says Insp. Pugh. "We want to talk people through it. Our negotiators have many tools and tactics, and we always have an on-call mental health practitioner that can provide them guidance and advice on how we can talk to this person, how we can best approach them."
Every team member has a role
Crisis negotiators like S/Sgt. Schwartz, who worked as a social worker before he became an RCMP officer, are the calm voice the person at the centre of a critical incident hears. Behind the team of negotiators is the rest of the specially-trained CIRT. This includes the RCMP Emergency Response Team, who use specialized tactics and equipment to resolve high-risk incidents; the RCMP Emergency Medical Response Team, who have paramedic-grade first aid training; and RCMP Police Dog Services, who provide tracking and tactical support.
Other components include: the explosive disposal unit; containment, who ensure a safe perimeter is maintained around an incident; and the emergency support unit, who oversee the deployment and maintenance of large pieces of equipment, including mobile command centres, which are used during large or prolonged incidents.
Overseeing all of these components during a CIRT response is a critical incident commander, like Insp. Pugh. All actions taken by the aforementioned units are approved by the critical incident commander. A scribe stays with him or her throughout the incident to record all decision-making. Organization and a clear chain of command is so important to an orderly and information-based response to critical situations.
Saskatchewan RCMP's CIRT uses advanced technology to assist in the resolution of critical incidents. This includes everything from specialized vehicles to phones that can be safely delivered to a barricaded person so a crisis negotiator can connect with them. If a threat to public safety cannot be resolved, the CIRT also has a range of equipment that assists officers in de-escalating risk with as little injury as safely possible.
Saskatchewan RCMP polices much of the province and the CIRT is always ready to deploy, regardless of where a critical incident occurs. Team members are posted throughout the province and are able to quickly depart to a scene, whether that's down the street or in a remote area only accessible by air. In 2021, CIRT responded to 52 emergency incidents. Members also participate in regular training sessions as well as mandatory debriefs after each incident.
What can you expect if there is a critical incident near you?
"There may be a heavy police presence with lots of police vehicles and flashing lights," says Insp. Pugh. "This may include armored vehicles. You may see police officers in tactical uniforms with tactical equipment. You may hear noises that sound like loud bangs and explosions. That may sound frightening but that the majority of this noise is generated by tactical equipment and non-lethal weapons."
The CIRT's job is ensuring everyone's safety – and that includes members of the public located in the vicinity of the incident. Police officers will set up a safe perimeter around it. If your house is nearby and you are not home, you may be asked not to return until you're advised it's safe to do so. If you are at home, a police officer may knock at your door and ask you to evacuate. You may receive a phone call from the Saskatchewan RCMP's Divisional Operational Communications Centre, asking you to shelter in place. That means you should lock your doors and windows and go to your basement, or an interior room.
Often, the Saskatchewan RCMP asks the public to refrain from sharing pictures or videos of the police response, or from posting officers' locations online. Doing so can significantly increase the risk faced by CIRT members – and can also impact the integrity of the investigation.
"I know people really want to know what's happening when they see a large police presence in their community," says Insp. Pugh. "We understand that. Often we are unable to release a lot of information about it right away. It's important to know that if a public safety risk is determined to exist we will always let the public know about it." Saskatchewan RCMP has many ways to pass this information on to the public – we work with our provincial news partners, maintain social media channels and, in the most dangerous of situations, can issue public emergency alerts that interrupt broadcasts of radio and television and are sent to every cell phone in a chosen area.
The Saskatchewan RCMP wants to help the public understand the highly-strategic response to these critical incidents – and know that our ultimate priority is keeping everyone safe. "I hope the public can understand that they should be reassured when they see these CIRT officers responding to an incident, or hear about it from the media or our own Saskatchewan RCMP messaging," says Insp. Pugh. "I think it's important to talk about these critical incidents, because they are a reality that police officers are called to help at. As Saskatchewan's police force, we've developed this team that is not only specially trained – but is truly committed to, and able to, resolve situations as peacefully as possible."