Police firearms officers are trained to kill – but are saving lives on the streets of South Yorkshire week after week.
About 80 officers are authorised to carry guns, but all are also specialist first aiders, trained to use defibrillators to re-start hearts, administer oxygen and stem severe blood flow after gun or knife attacks.
They undergo an intensive five-day training programme to carry life-saving equipment and step in to try to save casualties when they are the first to arrive at a crime scene, collision or fire.
With the county’s emergency services under pressure because of Government-imposed funding cuts, firearms officers are stepping in to save lives when arriving at incidents before paramedics.
Earlier this year, officers battled to revive casualties involved in a horror blaze on Wake Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield, in which five members of the same family died.
They also helped a motorcyclist with ‘possible life-altering injuries to his leg’ who they found drifting in and out of consciousness after a head-on crash on Cowper Crescent, Parson Cross, last week.
And the month before they saved the life of a man who had slashed his wrists.
In August, they saved the life of a Polish man stabbed in his back in Barnsley and in June they treated a man found with ‘multiple firearm wounds’ on a Sheffield street.
However, despite 90 per cent of their working days spent responding to routine police incidents, it is the 10 per cent of their time spent dealing with gun crime which separates them from the rest of the county’s bobbies.
Despite not receiving one extra penny than a routine bobby, firearms officers leave home every day not knowing if they will return at the end of their shift – putting themselves on the frontline in the war against gun crime.
They also know they could be called upon to take a life to save another.
Inspector Tim Mitchell said: “They don’t get paid a penny more and they volunteer for the role.
“Every single time they go to work they set off in the full knowledge they may have to take a life and the consequences of that.”
But Insp Mitchell, who carried a gun for two years and now manages firearms teams, said the protective clothing and equipment the officers carry and the specialist training and assessments they constantly undergo, minimises the risk.
And he said that despite no bullets ever being fired on the streets of South Yorkshire for more than two decades, if officers did have to shoot to kill their training would have worked.
He said: “Training is focused on shooting as a very very last resort.
“Firearms officers have a unique role in that if somebody dies and the police have been involved, for example in a collision or in custody, chances are that something will have gone wrong. However, if somebody is shot dead by a firearms officers it could be that the officer has done absolutely everything right – they have a duty to shoot to stop a lethal threat.
“It does place a massive amount of pressure on officers and their families, who would have to live with the consequences, but we are proud as a force that we have not had to do this for more than 20 years.”
Children warned on dangers
Thousands of children across South Yorkshire have been taught about the dangers of carrying guns and knives by firearms officers visiting schools for years in a bid to stop the next generation of criminals from putting themselves and others at risk.
The popular ‘Guns and Knives Take Lives’ presentation was delivered to about 80 schools last year alone by firearms officers.
But with all officers needed on the frontline because of dwindling numbers, police chiefs are reviewing whether to continue having officers making the school visits.
With police chiefs having to be more effective in the way the force works, South Yorkshire’s firearms officers are working more with neighbouring forces–- helping others out and calling in reinforcements when short on the ground in South Yorkshire.
Although all are trained to the same national standards, extra joint training exercises are being carried out to allow officers from surrounding forces to work together to ensure tactics match up.
Some officers have additional specialisms, such as close protection work when Royal Family members and senior politicians visit the county.
Others are trained to carry weapon in plain clothes for covert operations and others are skilled in making rapid entries into buildings.
Only the best are chosen
Firearms officers have arguably one of the most demanding roles within South Yorkshire Police – not just for danger they face on the frontline but for the effort it takes to keep their jobs.
Officers volunteer for the role, but only a select few are chosen, with physical fitness and mental strength key requisites.
After intensive initial training officers spend a month a year carrying out additional training.
Twice a year they undergo strict assessments to keep their jobs, in which their pistol firing ability is routinely tested.
They are also tested on their ability to fire more powerful rifles and baton guns, which fire rubber bullets. Their tactics are put to the test in regular training exercises. Officers also need to have physical strength – the specialist protective clothing they wear weighs two stone.
Inspector Tim Mitchell, who manages the firearms teams, said: “We look for a high level of personal responsibility, resilience and communication skills. Their primary function is to react to incidents involving those who are armed or otherwise.”