Armed policing


This module details the command structure and supporting measures appropriate to the deployment of authorised firearms officers (AFOs).

Additional guidance is available on the deployment of AFOs and discharge of firearms.

Command structure

The generic command structure used in the UK police service operates at three levels: strategic/gold, tactical/silver and operational/bronze.

Firearms operations often form one part of a more complex, multifaceted operation that will already be using gold, silver, bronze command descriptors. It is, therefore, important to define the command of the firearms element through the use of functional descriptors. The descriptors used throughout this module are:

Strategic firearms commander
Determines the strategic objectives and sets any tactical parameters. Retains strategic oversight and overall command and responsibility.
Tactical firearms commander
Develops, commands and coordinates the overall tactical response in accordance with strategic objectives.
Operational firearms commander(s)
Commands a group of officers carrying out functional or territorial responsibilities related to a tactical plan.

In an operation where the sole purpose is to use armed officers to carry out a specific action at a single location, the roles performed by commanders will be as outlined in command roles and functions.

Command roles and functions

The command structure offers flexibility in response to a varied and developing range of circumstances and is functional rather than based on rank. The structure must be clearly articulated to all those involved in the operation. Where time permits and it is appropriate to do so, briefing notes or flow charts showing the structure can aid people’s understanding of it.

The function of the strategic firearms commander (SFC) or tactical firearms commander (TFC) must not be undertaken by the senior investigating officer (SIO) responsible for the investigation of the offence(s) for which the firearms operation is being conducted.

The separation of SFC and SIO roles may however not be necessary during kidnap operations, prior to the safe recovery of the hostage(s) and where the operational priority is the preservation of life.

It is the responsibility of the strategic firearms commander to satisfy themselves that the tactical plan is capable of meeting the strategic aims of the operation, and that the provisions of ECHR Article 2 take precedence.

Any change of command structure should where time permits, be discussed before it is undertaken and must then be documented.

Recording and accountability

If an officer outside the command structure gives advice or a directive relating to the operational plan to a commander, then this must be recorded and this officer will be accountable for the advice or direction given.

Decision making

It is essential that objectivity and oversight are clearly demonstrated in the decision-making process. Separation of roles and clarity of responsibility is essential to the provision of effective command and tactical advice.

Tactical advice

Where tactical advice is required by a commander, this advice should be independent. The tactical advisor should be independent of the command structure and not part of the operational deployment.

Strategic firearms commander

This role:

  • has overall strategic command, with responsibility and accountability for directions given
  • must set, review, communicate and update the strategy based on the threat assessment and the available intelligence
  • should consider consulting a tactical advisor
  • should consider any tactical parameters to be placed on the police response
  • must ensure that the strategy for the armed deployment is recorded, including any changes to it, to provide a clear audit trail
  • must authorise the deployment of AFOs, or ratify or rescind the deployment where it has already been approved by the tactical firearms commander
  • should ensure that all decisions are recorded, where practicable, in order to provide a clear audit trail
  • must ensure that the firearms strategy complies with the wider strategic aims of the
    overall operation
  • should test the tactical plan against the established strategy, where practicable and/or time allows
  • is responsible for overall resourcing in respect of the deployment of AFOs
  • where appropriate, will chair meetings of the strategic coordinating group (SCG) when they are held during a multi-agency or multi-discipline response
  • should set command protocols where appropriate
  • should consider consulting partners, stakeholders and interest groups involved (if any) when determining strategy (see also development of strategy (gold)
  • should consider the need for a community impact assessments
  • should consider declaring and managing the event as a critical incident
  • should maintain a strategic overview
  • must be able to be contacted by the tactical firearms commander
  • is responsible for reviewing and ensuring the resilience and effectiveness of the command structure and the effectiveness of the tactical firearms commander
  • should consider the appointment of more than one tactical firearms commander where there are clear demarcations geographically (ie, police boundaries), or in respect of roles, or where the management of AFOs is only one part of the operational police response.

Tactical firearms commander

Where a strategic firearms commander is not yet in place, the tactical firearms commander will set the working strategy, including any appropriate tactical parameters. These will be reviewed and ratified by a strategic firearms commander as soon as practicable.

The tactical firearms commander:

  • must assess and develop the available information and intelligence, and complete the threat assessment
  • should consult a tactical advisor as soon as practicable
  • is responsible for developing and coordinating the tactical plan in order to achieve the strategic aims, within any tactical parameters set
  • is responsible for ensuring that officers and staff are fully briefed
  • should consider the provision of medical support
  • should be so located as to be able to maintain effective tactical command of the operation
  • should ensure that all decisions are recorded, where practicable, in order to provide a clear audit trail
  • provides the pivotal link in the command chain between strategic and operational firearms commanders
  • must constantly monitor the need for the continued deployment of AFOs.
  • must review and update the tactical plan and ensure that any changes are communicated to the operational firearms commanders and, where appropriate, the strategic firearms commander
  • should consider and, where appropriate, conduct a community impact assessments
  • should consider declaring and managing the event as a critical incident
  • should consider the number, role and function of the operational firearms commanders
  • should consider the wider community, public safety and evidential implications of the use of specialist munitions, pyrotechnic devices or incapacitants
  • should ensure that after all deployed staff are appropriately debriefed, operational and organisational learning takes place.

Operational firearms commander

This role:

  • must have knowledge and clear understanding of their role and the overall aim of the operation
  • must, where practicable, ensure that their staff are appropriately briefed
  • should be located where they are able to maintain effective command of their area
    of responsibility
  • ensures the implementation of the tactical firearms commander’s tactical plan within their territorial or functional area of responsibility
  • updates the tactical firearms commander, as appropriate, on current developments
  • makes decisions within their agreed level of responsibility, including seeking approval for any variation in agreed tactics within their area of responsibility
  • must ensure clear communication channels exist between themselves, the tactical firearms commander and those under their command
  • should consider declaring and managing the event as a critical incident
  • should be available to those under their command, however, they should allow them sufficient independence to carry out their specific role in accordance with the strategy and tactical plan
  • should ensure decisions taken are recorded, where possible, to provide a clear audit trail.

Tactical advisor

This role:

  • advises on the capabilities and limitations of the AFOs and other police resources being deployed
  • advises the strategic or tactical firearms commander on the implication of any tactical parameters which have been set
  • advises on the available tactical options for consideration by the strategic and tactical firearms commander within the existing strategy and any tactical parameters set
  • advises the firearms commanders on the tactical considerations, contingencies and implications for each tactical option (see National Decision Model)
  • should be in a position to assist and advise the tactical firearms commander at all stages of the operation
  • provides tactical advice reflecting the existing threat assessment
  • ensures that advice given is recorded.

The role of a tactical advisor is to advise and not to make command decisions. The responsibility for the validity and reliability of the advice lies with the advisor, but the responsibility for the use of that advice rests with the commander.

Command support

Command support is a useful element of the command structure.

Depending on the complexity of the operation, and the availability of support staff, all firearms commanders must consider the availability and necessity for:

  • intelligence liaison
  • tactical advisor
  • negotiator coordinator
  • logistics support
  • post incident management
  • media support.

Where incidents become protracted, there may be a need to establish a dedicated command facility to manage the operation. This ensures that operations do not impinge on day-to-day policing activity, or vice versa. Forces should ensure that adequate training is given to staff who may be required to perform roles within such a command facility.

Initial command responsibility

It is the responsibility of the officer authorising the deployment of AFOs to ensure that an appropriate command structure is instigated as soon as practicable. Where appropriate, this officer should remain in command of the deployment until any transfer of command takes place. In planned operations a command structure must be in place prior to the officers being deployed.

Any consideration in respect of the deployment of AFOs should be recorded along with the decision and rationale for it. Where a recommendation for the deployment of AFOs has been declined, the rationale for that decision should also be documented. In cases where AFOs have self-deployed, they must contact their nominated firearms commander as soon as practicable, to enable a command structure to be instigated.

Initial command of incidents

Where an incident is reported or comes to the attention of the police and an immediate operational deployment of AFOs is considered appropriate, the command structure is likely to be condensed. Initial command will usually sit with the person having ready access to information, communications and resources (this may be the force control room supervisor). Forces should, therefore, have structures in place that ensure the ready availability of tactical and operational firearms commanders.

If incidents become protracted, there should be arrangements which enable command to be transferred to a dedicated tactical firearms commander, thereby enabling others to return to their normal duties. The command of the incident and responsibility for its management rests with the initial commander until such time as command is transferred. They must ensure that all officers are sufficiently briefed, information-flows are established, and all officers are given as full a briefing as possible in the time available.

A strategic firearms commander should be contacted as soon as practicable and informed that an incident requiring the deployment of armed officers is taking place. The strategic firearms commander, when in a position to do so, should then review, agree or amend the strategy and any tactical parameters set and, where necessary, confirm or rescind any given authority.

Transfer of command

A designated strategic firearms or tactical firearms commander may not be in a position to take on the role immediately when contacted. They may, however, be in a position to ratify any strategic or tactical decisions made by the officers who have assumed initial command of the incident. Initially, information can be vague and confusing. It is, therefore, important for effective command to be established as quickly as possible and undertaken by the most appropriate person available. The transfer of command roles should take place as soon as practicable. A strategic or tactical firearms commander’s ability to assume command and effectively perform their command function will be dependent on a number of factors.

These factors include:

  • knowledge of the circumstances and available intelligence
  • the ability to communicate
  • appropriate tactical advice available
  • a suitable environment from which to exercise the command function.

On occasions, the initial tactical firearms commander may be in a better position to continue in the tactical firearms command role until a dedicated tactical firearms commander is in a position to take command.


The transfer of roles at any level in the command structure should be documented and include:

  • time and date of transfer
  • confirmation and relevant intelligence and information has been reviewed
  • confirmation that the new commander undertstands the situation and decisions taken.

Officers involved in the incident should be made aware of any changes in command, in so far as is practicable and where relevant to their role.


Commanders must, at the earliest opportunity, develop an effective strategy to direct police action. A working strategy may start to be developed once information is received. It can be formalised once a threat assessment has taken place.

A strategy may contain a number of objectives. Information and intelligence can change, as may the threat assessment, therefore, the strategy must remain dynamic and capable of being reviewed.

While it is important that a strategy is defined and agreed as quickly as possible, it must be based on all the information available at the time. It is rare for a complete or perfect picture to exist. Public safety should always be the priority and at times this may require immediate action to protect life, which, of necessity, may be based on limited information.

The strategy and the rationale behind it should be recorded as part of an audit trail, along with any revisions or amendments. Similarly, the strategy should be regularly reviewed, particularly where a change or handover of command occurs.

Effective strategy

An effective strategy should:

  • provide clarity of purpose
  • recognise public safety as a priority
  • reflect the multidimensional threat assessment in priority order
  • be achievable
  • be dynamic to reflect changes in circumstances
  • be specific to the operation.

When formulating a working strategy, firearms commanders are required to consider the role of the police in protecting the public alongside the wider duty to investigate crime and bring offenders to justice. Sustained public protection may be characterised as an acknowledgement that an extended duty of care to the public exists in some more complex operations.

Sustained public protection

The objective of any police investigation must be to protect the public through the detection and prevention of crime. This includes obtaining sufficient evidence to bring arrested persons to justice. While this objective legitimately includes an attempt to secure sufficient evidence to demonstrate the full extent of the planned and criminal intention, this must be balanced against any associated risk to the public.

Action taken to mitigate risk in the short term may only serve to displace or delay that risk and may not address the longer-term public safety considerations. It may only be possible to effectively eliminate risk to the public through the detention, successful prosecution and subsequent lengthy imprisonment of the subjects, particularly where they are committed or recidivist offenders. It may not, however, always be possible to develop a plan capable of securing sufficient evidence to do so without risk.

In a covert armed policing operation, the decision to activate a tactical arrest plan and move to an overt phase may have to take account of competing considerations in terms of evidential sufficiency and the safety of those potentially exposed to risk. Where the policing operation relates to more than one subject, evidential sufficiency may have to be considered in the wider context.

It is appropriate to assess the level of risk to the public in both the short and longer term. This may include consideration of whether the means by which more imminent risk is mitigated may increase risk in the longer term as a result of reduced police control and intelligence opportunities.

In deciding when to authorise the activation of the tactical arrest plan, a commander is, therefore, entitled to take into account the strength of the evidence against the subject(s) and to consider whether:

  • there is sufficient evidence to warrant the detention and prosecution of the subjects
  • overt police action at an early stage will reduce the likelihood of a successful prosecution
  • early overt police action will notify the subject(s) of the covert police operation and result in reduced control and intelligence opportunities
  • the longer-term public interest will be served by the activation of the tactical arrest plan at this stage.

Any armed policing operation must be planned and controlled so as to minimise, to the greatest extent possible, recourse to lethal force and risk to the public. Any command decisions which may potentially increase the short-term risks associated with the tactical arrest plan in order to reduce the long-term risk to the public must be fully rationalised and justified. In such cases commanders should seek to implement appropriate safeguards to minimise identified short term-risks where possible.

Tactical parameters

The strategic firearms commander may set or ratify tactical parameters within which the tactical firearms commander should develop the tactical plan.

Tactical parameters are set to give strategic direction, and not to develop or dictate tactics. In setting parameters, commanders should consider consulting a tactical advisor to discuss the effects of the parameters on the formulation of tactics. Where tactical parameters are set, they should be clearly articulated and regularly reviewed.

Command and operational resilience

The deployment of AFOs can result in a series of management issues. These could include:

  • commanders’ and AFOs’ continued fitness for duty, especially during prolonged deployments
  • identification of emerging stress factors
  • command and operational resilience in protracted incidents
  • need for mutual aid
  • understanding of the interoperability and capability of supporting forces.

These issues apply equally to AFOs and those undertaking command and support roles.

The management and command of situations involving the deployment of AFOs can be stressful and often involves fast, time-critical decision making. It is, therefore, essential that officers at command and support levels, as well as the AFOs involved in deployments, remain physically and mentally capable of undertaking these duties. Forces should have processes in place to monitor officers’ fitness for duty.

Where, during a protracted incident or operation, officers are required to remain on duty for extended periods, consideration should be given to ensuring continuity of command and operational deployment and arrangements for providing rest and refreshments.

Rest periods and refreshment breaks which are taken must be recorded. Where it is not possible to take refreshment breaks, this must also be recorded.

Command location

All firearms commanders should endeavour to be located where they can best undertake their respective roles.

Strategic and tactical firearms commanders should be located in positions where they are able to communicate, can be updated on developments and intelligence, and have access to tactical advice. As strategic and tactical firearms commanders perform different functions, their location needs may differ.

Tactical firearms commanders should be located where they can best actively monitor events and direct police actions. This may require them to be near to the scene, in a command vehicle, or in the control room, thereby enabling them to maintain an effective command function.

Operational firearms commanders should, as far as practicable, be located close to the officers that they are commanding.

In situations where a strategic or tactical firearms commander does not have access to communications, current intelligence or other support, for example, if they need to move location, they should ensure that another commander is in a position to temporarily undertake their role. This officer will maintain command until the original commander is once more in a position to command the operation.

Command protocols

Strategic and tactical firearms commanders may need to agree command protocols with local geographic commanders, taking into account any community issues. Where there is a multi-agency or interdisciplinary element to an operation, command protocols can assist in clarifying areas of responsibility and command function, channels of communication and primacy of command at various stages of the operation. This is particularly relevant where the firearms commanders may be part of a larger operation using the gold, silver, bronze structure.

Cross-boundary and multi-agency operations

It is often necessary for AFOs to operate outside their assigned policing boundary. This may be as a result of a pursuit, provision of mutual aid to a neighbouring force or policing area, or as part of an operation which transcends territorial policing boundaries.

This may include armed support to surveillance operations, protection or escort duties, see mobile armed support to surveillance (MASTS).

AFOs may also be involved in multi-agency operations. In these circumstances it is important that there is as much clarity as possible in respect of:

  • command
  • jurisdiction
  • standard operating procedures and interoperability
  • capability of those involved in the incident
  • powers and roles of respective agencies.

All commanders and AFOs are trained to agreed national standards, thereby enabling interoperability across policing boundaries.

Cross-boundary operations

The operational carriage of firearms across policing boundaries is a regular occurrence and police forces should adopt a pragmatic and effective approach to managing such situations. Where it can be planned for in advance, deployments of armed officers across boundaries should be catered for by way of local protocols and memoranda of understanding.

Unplanned deployment across force boundaries

Where AFOs deploy across a policing boundary in circumstances that are not expected or planned for, the original authorisation, deployment and command structure will remain in place.

The appropriate strategic firearms commander in the force or command area in which the deployment is taking place, however, must be notified at the earliest opportunity so that they can review the deployment and command structure. This will allow that officer to consider:

  • authorising the deployment of AFOs from the originating force or command area, together with their command structure, to continue running the operation
  • assuming responsibility for the operation, including command and the provision of AFOs
  • reviewing the deployment of AFOs and assuming the responsibility of strategic firearms commander (or appointing a new strategic firearms commander from within the force area) and dealing with the incident using the armed officers from the originating force
  • assuming responsibility and curtailing the operation.

Planned deployment across force boundaries

In circumstances where it is anticipated that AFOs will be operating across policing boundaries, command protocols should provide clarity as to any transfer of command that is required.

Where it is known that an armed deployment (including surveillance and protection operations) may transcend one or more policing boundaries, the original authority will normally remain, and no further authority will be required unless the operation:

  • is intended to intervene, intercept, contain, or have some other overt interaction with a subject or members of the public
  • is likely to have a significant impact on the community through which it will pass, or take place
  • will require support from the police area through which it is passing.

Where the criteria set out above are met, the force in whose area the deployment is taking place should be notified at the earliest opportunity.

This notification should include:

  • the nature and intention of the operation
  • the area in which it will be undertaken
  • contact details of the strategic and tactical firearms commanders.

Multi-agency operations

There may be occasions when a chief officer agrees to assist another law enforcement agency (for example, HM Revenue and Customs, Civil Nuclear Constabulary, HM Prison Service) with an operation that is within the force area and where the appropriate authority to deploy AFOs is given.

In these circumstances everyone involved must understand who is in command of each part of the operation. Command protocols may be a useful means of clarifying this. Close coordination and detailed planning between the organisations concerned is fundamental and should normally be agreed at gold level or its equivalent level of management in the organisations concerned.

Forces should take account of national multi-agency protocols and have local protocols with organisations that may require the deployment of AFOs in specific circumstances, for example, hospitals and prisons.

Accreditation of commanders

Chief officers must ensure that arrangements exist whereby appropriately selected, trained, assessed and accredited commanders and tactical advisors are available to command and advise on situations in which AFOs have been deployed.

Chief officers should consider the types of situations that police officers and staff may become involved in and ensure that there are sufficient numbers of trained officers who are security vetted to the appropriate level to act as strategic, tactical and operational firearms commanders, tactical advisors and AFOs (see command structure).

This is particularly important in relation to intelligence-led operations involving organised crime or terrorist-related incidents.

Occupational and operational competence within command roles

When an officer has attended and satisfactorily completed a course of instruction based on a command or tactical advice module in the national police firearms training curriculum (NPFTC), they will be assessed to be occupationally competent to perform that role.

Chief officers are responsible for ensuring that individuals who have been assessed as occupationally competent are professionally developed to ensure that they can be classed as operationally competent. A commander or tactical advisor must remain operationally competent by regularly performing the roles for which they have been trained.

Forces should consider implementing an auditable period of shadowing, mentoring and performance review as a means of achieving operational competence.

Re-accreditation and refresher process for commanders and tactical advisors

Commanders at all levels and tactical advisors must undergo annual commander/tactical advisor refresher training. This process must consist of the relevant approved annual command or tactical advisor refresher package, supplemented by additional local training which supports force and regional issues identified in the force’s armed policing Strategic Threat and Risk Assessment (STRA).

On the annual completion of these packages, a commander or tactical advisor’s occupational competence should be formally approved by the lead chief officer, or a person nominated by them, with responsibility for the management, command and deployment of armed officers.

Forces should maintain records of officers’ refresher training in order to show their continued competence.

Officers in command and tactical advisor roles must be formally re-accredited at least every five years, but consideration should be given to re-accreditation between three to five years depending on operational exposure.

Page last accessed 05 March 2021