Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion are bullsh!t, or are they?

If you have followed the Chronicles of a Culture Changer for very long, you know I write about what I know and have experienced, and/or what others have told me they have experienced. I do this because sometimes I failed to actively listen and assimilate information given to me by an expert. My hope is that by putting an avuncular face on these important subjects, peers may learn from my mistakes.

In 1995 when I attended the police academy, I took every subject, every scenario and every statement to heart. If you know me, you know that I took defensive tactics (DT), and officer safety as priority number one. I did so, not because range time wasn’t important, I just understood that statistically speaking, I would lay hands on way many more folks that I would shoot in my career.

Tunnel Vision DT4EMS

DT4EMS Logo Tunnel Vision Chronicles Post

While learning about officer safety, there were topics covered like tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. As a paramedic already, I had a solid understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System. I was pretty confident I could recognize the Sympathetic Nervous System and its response to illness or injury. I did take it serious though, especially when the instructors, seasoned law enforcement  vets, would tell stories of themselves and fellow officers being totally unaware of their surroundings because of a threat perception. I recall one story they talk about an officer hearing the hammer of a suspects weapon drop, yet never recall the sound of himself returning fire. Others still yet, emptying a magazine, reloading and not knowing they had done so.

Tunnel vision, for the purpose of this article, is when stress is present from a form of danger presented, and the defender visually locks in on that perceived threat.  Auditory exclusion deals with the ability to hear only certain things under stress.

A few years had passed since I graduated the police academy, not to mention the years prior I had in EMS, and I could not recall a single incident of Tunnel Vision or Auditory Exclusion ever happening to me. In other words, I thought to myself… “Well, it must be because of all my training and experience, Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion are bullsh!t, at least to me anyway…”

That perception changed one fateful night-shift while working patrol. Several officers and I were dispatched a BOLO (Be- On- The-Look-Out) for a vehicle that was just stolen in a violent home invasion. There were reports the vehicle would soon be traveling through our jurisdiction on the interstate.

My supervisor advised me to serve as a lookout. I backed into the parking lot of some self-storage units. I was facing the interstate,  just off of the North Service (Outer) Road, while the other units set up on the entrance ramps to the interstate itself.

It was late at night and very dark. I had a great view of passing cars on the interstate. From my vantage point, there was a series of street lights that illuminated the interstate in such a way I would have a clear line of sight for the suspect vehicle when it passed. It was my job to simply alert the staged units, should I spot the suspect vehicle, for them to be able to accelerate onto the interstate and make a traffic stop.

Being the newest guy on the squad, while not happy about it, I understood even though I was in the oldest, but fastest car in our fleet, I was just a lookout, a back-up if you will for those with seniority in the possible pending pursuit.

 I was looking past the two lane service road at the interstate, only making perfunctory acknowledgements of the vehicles passing from my left to right. I didn’t know it at the time, but Murphy was seated next to me in my patrol car, when all of a sudden I felt my head was awry, like a dog listening to a high pitched whistle, as it dawned on me I was looking eye to eye with the driver of the stolen car we were waiting for.  While in reality it was a split-second,  it seemed as if we locked eyes for much longer than that. In that moment, in my mind, it was almost as if his car had come to a complete stop… I can assure you he was far from stopping, as a matter of fact, he accelerated rapidly. I was surprised to say the least, because he was not on the interstate like we were expecting, but instead he was on the service road, right in front of me, the simple lookout.

I hit the lights and siren then radioed to dispatch that I was behind the suspect vehicle. I “goosed” the LT1 engine and it made that undeniable, two-pitched, “VA-ROOOOM”, mean-ass, I’m on him roar! Like a jet, launched for purpose, I was on his tail. He showed no intentions  of slowing down. Instead he dangerously, and in to oncoming traffic, pulled out and passed a slow moving semi… on a hill mind you. My heart was pounding, and I am sure I yelled a few expletives,  as I applied my brakes.  Once the semi yielded to the right and it was safe for me to pass, I once again released the stallions of the 1993 Chevy Caprice.

The suspect was a bit ahead of me, but I was for darn sure closing in as he ran the stop sign at the next overpass.  Recalling due regard, and fearing for the safety of innocent motorists and bystanders, once again I found myself off the accelerator and foot-heavy on the brakes.

As I pulled through the intersection, the LT1 engine revving, it was obvious his stolen vehicle was no match for the performance of the LT1 and his unfamiliarity with the treacherous road ahead.

We were rapidly approaching a 90 degree curve in the road, where the road split, like a “Y”, into a state numbered highway and the continuation of the North Service (outer)Road. My familiarity had me slow, waiting to see which direction he would choose. In what appeared to be a moment of confusion for him, he failed to negotiate the curve. I watched in disbelief as his car hit the ditch, then a concrete driveway (the entrance to a local motel), and went airborne.  It was like something out of a movie or the Dukes of Hazzard. The car flew unbelievably high into the air. It landed on its right side and slid into a telephone pole that up-righted the car.

The next couple of moments were a blur. In an instant,  I somehow found myself at the broken out driver’s window of the suspect’s vehicle. I had parked my patrol car, removed my seatbelt, closed the gap, I had already cleared leather, and was barking commands for him to show me his hands as I was looking over the barrel ( and he down ) of my service weapon.

I had no idea any other officers were even on the way yet, much less on the scene. I only realized their presence once the barrel of another officer’s weapon was close to mine. It spooked me, I am sure I flinched. Lucky for the suspect my finger was outside the trigger guard. Thing is, I never heard the other officers arrive, no sirens, no screeching tires, nothing. I never saw additional flashing lights, headlights, or anything else other than the narrow view of the  immediate area of the suspect.

After politely escorting the suspect out of the car and onto the ground, we took him into custody without further incident. I recall that being the first time, of several, I recognized the true existence of Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion. Of course, it wasn’t until may years later did I talk about it. You know, I was too cool, had to be perceived as tough, to admit it actually happened to me.

For me, this experience, as several others not only proved the veracity in existence of, but the needing to train for Tunnel Vision and Auditory Exclusion. Seems like I see in many of the next generation of cops and EMSers wrestling with the same things. They, like I did, left medic school and/or the academy, thinking we had learned what was needed to successfully perform our duties. Let me put it like this… It is like when you earn your first black-belt… training is not complete, it just means now you have laid the  foundation for your learning to actually begin.