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SWAT trainees hone skills, endurance

THISTLE — Welcome to Hell Week 2003. This is where even the toughest men and women are pushed to their emotional, physical and mental limits. The five-day rigorous event is designed to teach special weapons and training teams about real-life dangers such as riots and hostage situations.

"Quickness saves lives. You don't want to find out on the line that a team member can't do his or her part. They could become a danger to the team," said Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Wally Perschon.

Perschon watched as participants in the training drills, clad in camouflage fatigues, face paint and flak jackets, carried each other across an obstacle course.

Perschon is responsible for creating the Utah County SWAT-training course, which is drawing participants from states in the Intermountain West.

"We build on basic skills. We work on endurance," he said. "Everything we do has a purpose, and it's all built on good principles."

SWAT teams rely on the ability to surprise an assailant and overwhelm him before he can hurt victims or officers.

"We learn to focus regardless of intense exhaustion (and) establish those patterns that could save our lives and those of others in actual operation," Perschon said.

The training includes classes on scouting, hostage rescue, long- and short-range shooting, vehicle assault and basic triage. There also are workshops on how to deal with such urban obstacles as fences and how to use ladders.

"It's a demanding school, really demanding," said Pleasant Grove Sgt. Mike Smith. "It's not just set up to punish people."

The men and women who come to the school know they are in for it. They each pay $225 for only a few hours of sleep a night and 12 to 16 hours of running, crawling and wading through water.

They learn to apply face paint to hide them in the dark and enter homes and banks that are being robbed by armed intruders. They practice "spider dropping," the art of hanging onto the edge of a building with a toe and a finger and then letting go.

They blow open doors and learn to appreciate how fast a detonator cord can burn to a bomb on the other end. And they get sprayed with tear gas.

"I kind of got sand-bagged into this. It's challenging," said Jeff Buhman, a deputy Utah County attorney. "I'm different than these guys, who'll actually be doing this. For me, it gives me a perspective I don't usually get."

"I thought it would be brutal. We've done a lot of pushups, and everywhere we go, we have to run. We have to maintain our gear. We have to partner up a lot. I don't think I've slept more than three hours a night," said Chet Culley, an officer from Longmont, Colo.

Not surprisingly, some drop out.

"You learn your capabilities as well as your limitations. It's a good place to find out it's not for you if it's not for you," Perschon said. "Better now than on the line."