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The Los Angeles Police Department's Hydra Program: Command Officer Training for Critical Incidents

By Timothy J. Kalkus, Sergeant II, Hydra Program, Los Angeles, California, Police Department

aw enforcement professionals can point to a variety of historical incidents where seemingly innocuous occurrences have evolved into full-fledged crises. Critical incidents have a trajectory, and each department’s command staff has a crucial role to play in mitigating liability along its flight path. The golden hour of critical response has a huge bearing on an incident’s final outcome.

Training to handle a critical incident requires a learning environment where the complexity, chaos, and challenge of real incidents are recreated. In this environment, command officers should test and experience real-life skills to solve problems and to confront and overcome the many challenges of a critical incident. For the training to be successful, it must simulate a real incident to ensure that the experiences gained can be readily and easily transferred to live incidents. To be realistic and immersive, the training must mirror the reality of what the command would face, with the same sounds, looks, and sensations of the real event. The Hydra Simulation System fills this need in the continued education of police commanders.

The Hydra Concept

Hydra Simulation System
Named after the seven-headed beast from Greek lore, Hydra is an immersive simulation police training system developed in the United Kingdom for real-time decision making during critical incidents.
The Hydra system was first adopted by the Metropolitan Police Service, New Scotland Yard, London, England, in response to the Hillsborough Disaster. A public inquiry led by Lord Chief Justice Taylor, published in 1989, indicated that police mismanagement of the crowd directly contributed to the deaths of 96 spectators attending the Liverpool versus Nottingham football match. The Taylor report had many specific recommendations, one of which was improved command-level training.1 The Hydra system’s developer, Jonathan Crego, PhD, MBE, worked tirelessly alongside United Kingdom law enforcement professionals in a successful bid to improve this training.2 The Hydra methodology was the result. The system has been significantly modified and improved since those early days, and its expansion to 60 sites worldwide is a testament to its effectiveness, versatility, and longevity.

The goal of Hydra is to bring training to life and provide practitioners with experiences of incident management within a training environment that is readily transferable to the real world. The complex and media-rich information flow to and from each syndicate is delivered electronically. The resulting decisions and supporting rationale are captured and then examined at critical points during the scenario.

Hydra is not a video game, and there is no requirement to purchase sophisticated hardware. In fact, the Hydra suite in the Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD) is outfitted with over-the-counter desktop computers, projectors, and video equipment. Moreover, Hydra software is licensed by Dr. Crego to law enforcement and fire departments worldwide for one dollar, with the only caveat being that licensed Hydra suites are obligated to share their research data and scenarios with other suites.

Hydra in the LAPD

The LAPD Hydra suite consists of six rooms. The control room houses the Hydra events, communications, and subject matter expert stations. This room is adjoined by a plenary room, three syndicate rooms, and a role-play room. Each room serves a specific purpose. The plenary room acts as a debriefing center where all decisions are discussed in an open forum. Delegates receive their initial briefings in the plenary room and return to it based on the exercise parameters. Syndicate rooms act as breakout centers and house a Hydra computer terminal, a conference table, and white boards. The role-play room can be used in a variety of ways. In the LAPD’s most recent exercise, two delegates were chosen to brief the department’s chief of staff concerning their operational plan. In real life, this type of tasking normally involves some trepidation. Hydra delivered that realism by placing the delegates in the role-play room with the department’s chief of staff. This briefing was captured on live video and fed into the plenary room for the other delegates to observe. The learning is thereby extended to all participating members in real time. Press briefings, meetings with victims’ families, and community forums also can be replicated in the role-play room.

Photos, top left to right: LAPD officer Erin Gabaldon at the communications station within the Hydra control room; the plenary room during a homicide investigations training
Bottom left to right: LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing and Sergeant II Timothy Kalkus at the subject matter experts station within the Hydra control room; and Sergeant II Kalkus at the subject matter expert station

Hydra delegates are divided into incident management teams (IMTs) and receive an assortment of “injects” in their designated syndicate rooms. These injects take a variety of forms: newscasts, intelligence updates, phone calls, text messages, police radio traffic, and standard organizational reports. The information and tasks received within the syndicates are designed to be commensurate with the experience level normally associated with command-level positions. The delegates enter their decisions and supporting rationale into the Hydra system, where it is captured for use during the next plenary session. All the while, the subject matter experts in the control room monitor each syndicate via live video and audio feed. The delegates are then directed back to the plenary room where all decisions and supporting rationales are discussed in a frank manner. This affords each IMT a glimpse into the other team’s decision-making process. Furthermore, one of the IMTs commonly referred to as “the diamond panel” usually comprises the next strata of management. The team produces decisions and rationales based on the same information as the other syndicates. However, this feedback tends to be more strategic and less tactical. The inclusion of this team affords less experienced delegates the opportunity to learn from the diamond panel’s experience and get a flavor for its expectations.

Delegates are commonly tasked with complex risk analyses, the development of media strategies, and the production of operational orders. This forces them to not only tightly grip the unfolding incident, but also constantly move from strategic forward planning to tactical decision making. The duration of the training is limited only by the intended scope. The portfolio of existing exercises worldwide extends from counterterrorism to domestic violence to child abuse. Even delegates can find themselves implementing difficult recovery plans if the exercise calls for it. Learning occurs when the teams compare and contrast possible solutions with the aid of subject matter experts. This cycle continues throughout the day, and the speed of the exercise can be adjusted to the skill level of the delegates.

Flexible Participation

Another one of Hydra’s strength lies in its flexibility in terms of participation. The LAPD recently hosted an informative counterterrorism exercise involving its regional partners. This type of multiagency scenario can be developed to test mutual aid agreements, lines of communication, conflicting procedures, and varied mind-sets. Community and business leaders are encouraged to participate, thus providing the recipients of police services an equal opportunity to lend voice to the discussion. There is no limit to the types of exercises that can be designed or to the configurations of individual syndicates.

It must be clearly understood that Hydra is not an assessment center. Hydra exercises are driven by the understanding that serious training cannot be conducted in a career-limiting environment. Strategies, tactics, policy, and procedure are vigorously tested; career paths are not. Discussions that normally take place “by the water cooler” are examined in full detail. In keeping with this promise, Hydra adopted what is commonly known as the Chatham House Rule.3 This rule provides that members attending a seminar may discuss the results of the seminar in the outside world, but they may not discuss who attended or identify what a specific individual said.

Having said this, all individuals involved understand that assessment is a necessary component of the policing environment. Professionally, law enforcement professionals need to know if a commander is up to the task of handling a critical incident. To this end, there are models of development through Hydra whereby professionals are developed in the Hydra learning environment and assessed externally.

Members of the LAPD command staff, Federal Bureau of Investigation supervisory agents, Los Angeles City Fire Department personnel, and United Kingdom counterterrorism experts all participated in the LAPD’s most recent exercise. The scenario was centered on a group of homegrown terror suspects recently radicalized and released from the Folsom, California, State Prison. Current events in the Middle East had prompted this group to target the Israeli consulate and prominent Jewish synagogues within Los Angeles. The delegates were provided global, national, and local intelligence updates; recent crime and suspicious activity reports; surveillance videos; and local newscasts. External and internal communication strategies, operational planning methods, intelligence dissemination guidelines, and organizational policies were put to the test. The next iteration of this exercise will include a new group of command staff personnel, Muslim and Jewish community leaders, and board members from the Los Angeles Police Commission.

A syndicate room during a homicide investigations training

The LAPD is very pleased with the program’s initial implementation. Hydra will undoubtedly play a significant role in the department’s training regimen for years to come. In fact, it is expected to create a paradigm shift in the way U.S. law enforcement executives are trained to handle critical incidents. This system will not only benefit local law enforcement in Los Angeles; Hydra will bridge the gaps among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies; fire department personnel; civic leaders; and community leaders. The low cost and capacity to train across jurisdictional boundaries make this system very compelling. Funding for the Hydra facility was donated by the Los Angeles Police Foundation, with major contributions from the Target Corporation and the Annenberg Foundation. The Hydra suite is located at the LAPD Ahmanson Recruit Training Center, 5651 W. Manchester Blvd, Los Angeles, California. For more information concerning the LAPD’s Hydra program, e-mail Sergeant II Timothy J. Kalkus at ■


1“How the Hillsborough Disaster Happened,” BBC News, April 14, 2009, (accessed February 11, 2011).
2Policing Critical Incidents: Leadership and Critical Incident Management, ed. Laurence Alison and Jonathan Crego (Portland, Ore.: Willan, 2008), 24–25.
3“Chatham House Rule,” Chatham House, (accessed February 11, 2011).

Please cite as:

Timothy J. Kalkus, "The Los Angeles Police Department’s Hydra Program: Command Officer Training for Critical Incidents," The Police Chief 78 (April 2011): 48–51.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 3, April 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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