Building Regional Police Collaboration

A Different Perspective Based on Lessons Learned

By Mike Masterson and Eugene Smith, M.S.
Two police officers stand near a Sarasota County fire truck with an ambulance nearby.

Law enforcement leaders occupy the “top box” of organization charts. While vertically managing their own departments, they also have leadership responsibilities to ensure horizontal collaboration with other agencies. Executive leaders must depend on each other and often rely heavily on mutual aid agreements. Monthly meetings to discuss needs and reach consensus on critical issues are valuable.

In one Idaho county, a memorandum of agreement (MOA) established a critical incident task force to conduct investigations of officer-involved incidents that resulted in serious injury or death. Another agreement developed a common system for sharing reports and accessing records. Together, local law enforcement agencies endorsed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on pursuits—from standardizing language to establishing supervisory expectations for oversight and command.

Leaders recognize that mutual aid agreements and MOUs generally are reactive. However, in today’s police operations, they need to consider using them proactively.

Mutual aid agreements are not just processes and procedures for responding to disasters or emergencies once they have happened. Such agreements are an essential component of deterrence and prevention. When mutual aid agreements are used as proactive vehicles, their utility is vastly expanded and, some should argue, is even more valuable than their response capabilities. Local law enforcement agencies that work closely together to identify regional threats, share intelligence, and work constructively with private sector entities and other governmental agencies are more likely to prevent an emergency or disaster.1


Police leaders working together not only is symbolic but it sets the tone for expectations for handling everything from critical incidents to traffic stops. While agency leadership meetings often focus on administrative issues, a group of leaders—from sergeants to captains—representing several Ada County, Idaho, law enforcement agencies recognized the need to meet on a variety of operational issues. This group, Multiagency Coordination for Law Enforcement (M.A.C.L.E.), developed its own mission to—

  • build a strong network of law enforcement agencies in Ada County that will provide consistent and continuing cooperation for responses following the guidelines and principles of the National Incident Management System (NIMS);
  • create and provide training that will ensure seamless, unified responses to large multijurisdictional incidents by using clearly defined guidelines; and
  • ensure coordination of responses that supports the policies and missions of individual agencies while creating an effective and unified law enforcement presence in the county.

The steering committee meets monthly to plan and develop training, share information, and coordinate efforts for upcoming community events. M.A.C.L.E. sponsors and conducts quarterly training that all agency field supervisors and commanders are invited and encouraged to attend. The group developed policies on vehicle pursuits, crowd-control practices, high-risk felony stops, foot pursuits, and off-duty survival, as well as a coordinated regional response to active shooter situations.

Because there is no way to know which police department employees might be the first to arrive at the scene of an active shooter event, many policies call for training of all officers in the skills that would be needed to perform a critical task…. In addition, advance training should be conducted on a regional basis.2

Mike Masterson
Mr. Masterson retired as chief of the Boise, Idaho, Police Department.
Eugene Smith
Deputy Chief Smith serves as special operations group commander with the Boise, Idaho, Police Department.

Not all agency heads understand the importance of regional collaboration. However, cooperation in metropolitan areas is somewhat common and appears as backup during traffic stops; pursuits; requests for K-9 officers; and responses to medical emergencies and life priority calls, such as armed subjects threatening themselves or others.

In Ada County in 2014, there were eight incidents where three or more jurisdictions involving up to 38 units responded to a call. After one call alerting officers of a man with a gun at a local high school, 60 officers, 15 of them in civilian clothes, were the first responders to the school. The incident commander (IC) made a decision that no plainclothes officers would enter the building because of the increased risk of a “blue-on-blue” shooting. The IC created one staging area and sent two uniformed contact teams into the building.

It was a valuable learning experience on coordinating a multiagency, regional law enforcement response using dispatched and self-directed officers (uniformed and plainclothes); gathering intelligence; and searching for the threat. However, these learning opportunities never should happen through trial and error at the scene of an actual incident.

One final observation on being an IC in these types of calls is the first person to assume that role is “drinking through a fire hose” until additional commanders arrive on scene to assist with delegation of tasks. The best you can hope for is to make a few key decisions early that will mitigate problems downstream.3

Reaching an agreement on a multijurisdictional response and identifying important choices and action steps could make a difference in stopping a threat and saving lives.


Lesson One

An appropriate starting point would be to schedule an executive-level meeting to discuss how various agencies can work together. It is not the actual meeting itself that matters, but, rather, the communication and relationships that develop and flourish. When drawing on lessons learned from agencies with previous experience in crisis and active shooter responses, it is important to include fire and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel.

The value of bringing agency leaders together cannot be underestimated. They share information, discuss expectations, ask questions, review scenarios, and articulate their visions. Continued collaboration, coordination, and communication are critical for reinforcing and maintaining established links, processes, and plans.4 Most important, they nurture cooperative relationships. Agency leaders should dedicate time and resources to meetings and planning versus finger-pointing and blame after an incident has occurred.

More than 20 law enforcement and emergency management agencies from the Madison, Wisconsin, metropolitan area participated in Operation Wisconsin Dawn.5 The Madison area currently does not have a regional agreement, but this mass casualty exercise served as a focal point for future meetings and agreements. The value of a specific scenario exercise is less about stopping the bad guy and more on conversing and identifying capabilities. It is an excellent way to identify what works and what does not (the gaps), and then revise plans accordingly. The chart in figure 1 indicates that it is best to keep things simple in the beginning with meet-and-talk strategies, then progress as planning and training needs determine.

Figure 1: Multiyear Training and Exercise Plan

This chart indicates that it is best to keep things simple in the beginning with meet-and-talk strategies, then progress as planning and training needs determine. Source: U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Source: U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency,

The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) recommends two categories of exercises—discussion and operation based.6 Discussion-based exercises include workshops, tabletop discussions, and games to familiarize participants with or to develop plans, policies, agreements, and procedures. Operation-focused exercises involve reacting to specific scenarios that test communication systems and mobilize resources to determine capabilities.

It is not sufficient to meet once to discuss how each agency handles crises. Several meetings are necessary to develop relationships and trust that will enable managers to empower their staff to finalize agreements. The most important point in the first lesson is to bring all public safety disciplines in the community together to determine the direction of a critical incident response.

Lesson Two

To create a viable regional agreement regarding multiagency actions, organizations must standardize language and write down expectations. This document should identify the need to regulate entry and room-clearing techniques, search for secondary explosive devices, and provide emergency medical care. It also needs to include details as seemingly unimportant as using agency and last name for communicating.

First responders, if alone and entering to stop a threat, could use an orange marker on a car windshield to note a unit number and door entered, critical information for those providing backup. It also is important to identify mass casualty collection areas, determine when and where fire and EMS personnel will enter, and ensure that medical personnel are safe. It is necessary to discuss security or provide an escort team for protection so staff can triage patients at the scene and provide lifesaving treatment or evacuate the most seriously injured.

Local jurisdictions must build sufficient public safety resources to handle active shooter or mass casualty scenarios. Together, police and fire personnel must have common tactics, communications, capabilities, and terminology to ensure seamless, effective operations. They also should establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) for these volatile and dangerous situations. The goal is to plan, prepare, and respond in a manner that will save the maximum number of lives possible.7

The second lesson learned is that common tactics and communication ensure understanding.

Lesson Three

As important discussions among leaders unfold, first-level supervisors must listen to each other, and ask if there is a need for further standardization of the message. For example, is it clear whether personnel “run, hide, fight”; “avoid, deny, defend”; or “evacuate, hide out, take action”?8 Word choice is vitally important—“terminating” a vehicle pursuit could have different meanings for 800 officers from five different law enforcement agencies.

Officers carefully must choose the words that explain the actions citizens should take. Experts agree that once egos are set aside, work can begin on language and terminology.9 In today’s society it is just as important to standardize language for the public as it is for first responders. Consistency in words and definitions is essential, not unlike what fire departments have created across the country with their “Stop, Drop, and Roll” training.

The acceptable standardized term for crowd-control, special-event teams is “incident response teams.” Sometimes, there is no national consensus on common terminology; therefore, agencies at least should agree locally on vocabulary—such as “warm zones,” “clear,” and “entry teams”—for police, fire, and EMS personnel. It is important to avoid code and use simple words. The third lesson encourages use of basic language and standard definitions that provide understanding among all disciplines.

Lesson Four

What is most important in a crisis is stopping the threat and saving lives. Officers need to sharpen tactical skills; however, they must understand that crises are dynamic, and roles can shift rapidly from tactical to medical, which may be a matter of life or death. Evaluation of prior incidents indicates the need to carry a particular lifesaving device—the tourniquet. Past events revealed extremity traumas where hemorrhage control using a quickly applied tourniquet saved lives. Tourniquets are inexpensive and critical.

Some Ada County officers were among the first in the state and the nation to receive tourniquets and emergency medical training from paramedics who served in combat zones in Afghanistan. Since spring 2011 agencies now issue tourniquets to individual officers, and all police vehicles contain gunshot trauma kits consisting of a tourniquet, gauze, and pressure bandages. However, securing medical equipment is not enough. Police agencies must involve fire personnel and paramedics in planning, training, and responding to mass casualty incidents.

It is a mistake to treat crises responses as criminal investigations and limit the involvement of others. These situations require total public safety support, which reinforces the need to include fire and EMS personnel in policy development, operational response planning, and ongoing training efforts. 

During a meeting to revise their protocol, Santa Clara County, California, officials made an observation.

It was interesting to note that at the outset of the discussion some of the fire chiefs referred to an active shooter incident as a law enforcement event, but the more we talked about the response, we came to an agreement that it was a coordinated public safety effort. Obviously, law enforcement would take the lead, but fire and EMS have to be partners in the command system. Getting fire and EMS personnel into the warm zone to more quickly provide life-saving medical assistance is something that we are working to incorporate into our plan.10

This lesson came notwithstanding a model protocol developed in 2009 for regional collaboration of active shooter responses. Lesson four demonstrates the need for regular meetings and continuous improvement of agreements that outline requirements and expectations, particularly when crises shift from tactical to medical necessities.

Lesson Five

Finally, agencies must work with the community, not only educating the public on what to do if a crisis occurs but also starting the conversation on prevention and early intervention. Law enforcement organizations never should underestimate the value of community awareness, education, and engagement.

Businesses often are active shooters’ preferred targets—of 84 incidents recorded between 2000 and 2010, 31 occurred in commercial settings.11 It is beneficial to conduct briefings for business and security leaders in the community. There are organizations, such as InfraGard, that establish partnerships between law enforcement and the community.12

Also fundamentally important is violence prevention through gathering pre-attack behavior indicators and risk assessments of individuals who might harm others. These are not only a given in today’s world but a priority. Creating community awareness, education, and engagement are the most important aspects of the fifth lesson learned.


In today’s violent world, creating a critical infrastructure with candid conversations and agreement on policies and procedures among agencies is a necessity. The discussions cannot stop with an executive seminar or publication of critical issues in policing.13 During a recent forum, many law enforcement leaders contributed firsthand knowledge of active shooter responses to develop best practices for educating the public, rendering emergency medical services, and minimizing inherent risks.

Police leaders need to continue the dialogue, challenge themselves to adopt best practices, and encourage clearly understood, uniform language. One guiding principle that serves as a secret to success for a police leader is to ask others for best practice examples.

Several agencies adopted Santa Clara County’s model as a starting point for creating a regional response agreement. No one wants to experience crisis to become an expert. Law enforcement leaders have an obligation prior to an incident to continue these discussions on paper, in person, or by Internet. Most important, they must keep the conversation going.

For additional information please contact Mr. Masterson at or Deputy Chief Smith at 


1 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Mutual Aid: Multijurisdictional Partnerships for Meeting Regional Threats, by Phil Lynn, NCJ 210679 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Assistance, September 2005), 5, accessed September 23, 2015,
2 Critical Issues in Policing Series: The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, March 2014), 13, accessed September 23, 2015, 20response%20to%20active %20shooter%20incidents%202014.pdf.
3 Lieutenant Scott Colaianni, Meridian, ID, Police Department, interview by authors.
4 Standing Together: An Emergency Planning Guide for America’s Communities (Oakbrook Terrace, IL: Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, 2005), 84, accessed September 23, 2015,  
5 Nico Savidge, “Hundreds Take Part in Camp Randall Bombing Drill,”, July 17, 2014, accessed September 23, 2015,
6 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) (Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, April 2013), accessed September 23, 2015,
7 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Fire Administration, Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department Operational Considerations and Guide for Active Shooter and Mass Casualty Incidents (Emmitsburg, MD: U.S. Fire Administration, September 2013), 3, accessed September 23, 2015,
8 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Active Shooter-Pocket Card Information, accessed September 23, 2015,
9 Doug Wyllie, “How Words Can Help Improve Active-Shooter Response,”, February 24, 2014, accessed September 23, 2015,
10 Chief Frank J. Grgurina, Sunnyvale, CA, Department of Public Safety, interview by authors.
11 Police Executive Research Forum, Critical Issues in Policing Series: The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents, 4.
12 InfraGard is a partnership between the FBI and the private sector. It is an association of persons who represent businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States. InfraGard, accessed September 25, 2015,
13 Police Executive Research Forum, Critical Issues in Policing Series: The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents