Calif. SWAT team gets tactical medics

Dr. Hartwell Lin and Dr. Russell Rodriguez, veteran emergency physicians at John Muir Medical Center in Concord, are joining Concord's SWAT detail

By Robert Salonga
San Jose Mercury News

CONCORD, Calif. — The next time the Concord police SWAT team rolls out, there will be a doctor in the house.

Or, to modify an old medical adage, they're going to take two and call them to the crime scene.

Dr. Hartwell Lin and Dr. Russell Rodriguez, veteran emergency physicians at John Muir Medical Center in Concord, are joining the city's SWAT detail, reflecting a national trend among local police forces.

The new arrangement puts the doctors on-call to provide on-scene care and, during down times, serve as medical advisers to the officers. The shifts for Lin and Rodriguez are arranged so that, most of the time, at least one is available for SWAT duty.

Monday marked the first session for the doctors to train as "tactical medics."

"It's a full day of orientation and immersion in our SWAT team, followed by monthly training," Concord police Lt. David Hughes said. "We help them get accustomed to how the teams move and communicate, and teaching things like what you do with a barricaded suspect and how those scenarios differ from hostage situations and search warrants."

Within minutes, the doctors were put to work when an officer was burned by a hot casing ejected from his firearm. After patching him up, training continued.

Hughes said the partnership was borne from growing calls from national police organizations for SWAT teams to have medical personnel on hand who can maneuver and perform in police scenarios. Concord police had good fortune in bridging that gap -- Cpl. Christine Magley was a paramedic in her previous career and served as the team's first tactical medic.

In recent years, that trend grew to encompass medical doctors. Hughes said that, about 18 months ago, Lin and Rodriguez approached police about fulfilling this role.

"It would be a great idea if we could have emergency-room physicians on scene -- a huge asset and advantage," Hughes said.

Inspiration came to Rodriguez through exposure to someone who had done the job before -- his mentor at Stanford University, who worked as a doctor with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office's SWAT team.

Rodriguez also had another more direct connection to police work -- his brother-in-law is a Concord police detective. He also attended an international conference covering tactical medicine to learn more about the role.

"It's situational understanding, what you can and can't do in these environments," he said.

Lin said he and Rodriguez also were inspired by the deaths of four Oakland police officers in March 2009 at the hands of a gunman. They had close ties to the Oakland force, and that tragedy compelled them to channel their medical training in that direction.

"When the incident in Oakland happened, it really hit home," Lin said.

Evolving police standards could eventually require them to become reserve officers, Lin said, both for protection and liability purposes. For now, their current training is in addition to their day jobs; the SWAT medic job is officially a volunteer position.

"We are still full-time emergency physicians," Lin said. "We're taking this on as a contribution to the community."

Both doctors live in San Ramon, but their ER shifts are coordinated so that at least one is working in Concord in most cases.

"One of us is readily available to respond," Lin said.

During Monday's session at the Concord Police Officers Association shooting range, the doctors could be seen handling firearms, but they will not be armed when serving as tactical medics. The training includes giving the physicians familiarity with the weapons, in case they have to disarm or disable one for safety reasons.

More learning is needed before the doctors are up to full speed in their new roles, Hughes said. But as with their day jobs, these doctors should expect to get the call at any point.

"The reality is we can use them right now," Hughes said. "We're still on the front end. Then we'll really start ramping things up."

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