Taming Your Nightmares

By definition, scenario-based training is unpredictable. Does that mean you're stuck with world-class, cold-sweat-soaking-the-sheets nightmares before every training?


In an earlier column I alluded to nightmares trainers have. All trainers have nightmares of one sort or another: if you are a classroom trainer, you worry that the AV won't work; or you'll stand up to conduct a three-hour training and realize you only have enough material for 15 minutes (my personal favorite), or no one will return after the first break, and so on. Trainers who teach physical skills worry about injuries. Scenario-based trainers have an additional layer of worry that gives rise to truly exceptional nightmares: by definition, scenario-based training is somewhat unpredictable. Incorporating context and uncertainty is what makes the training realistic, and therefore more effective than purely cognitive classroom training or "static" physical training, in which participants practice psychomotor skills in isolation.

Cops like to be in control. We're taught from day one of the academy that our job is to control--suspects, scenes, crowds, interviews. So how can a control freak ever be comfortable teaching scenario-based training, with its essential element of unpredictability? The answer is twofold:

  1. You don't want to be totally comfortable--it's too close to complacent
  2. Control freaks make the best scenario-based trainers--they're safer

Does that mean you're stuck with world-class, cold-sweat-soaking-the-sheets nightmares before every training? Not at all. The key is to recognize that although scenario-based training is unpredictable, it is unpredictable in a few predictable ways--and you can prepare for those.

What If?

What can go wrong when you're doing scenario-based training? Play What if? for a few minutes and see what you come up with. Your list will probably look something like this:

  • Someone could get hurt
  • Someone could get hurt bad
  • Someone could get killed
  • The role-players could go off script and end up just hazing the trainee
  • Civilian outsiders could wander into the scenario
  • Law enforcement outsiders could wander into the scenario
  • The role-players or trainees could wander out of bounds
  • Equipment could fail
  • Something could get broken or damaged
  • Someone could freak out
  • Someone could have a heart attack
  • An asteroid could hit the earth during the training

If you think about it, all these "nightmares" fall into just four categories: (1) injuries and medical/emotional problems, (2) role-player discipline problems, (3) site security problems, and (4) equipment problems. (You can cross the asteroid off your worry list--we'd all get squashed whether you're doing scenario-based training or not!)

The secret to sleeping well the night before training is to put in time and energy up front to prevent problems from happening and plan your response if they happen anyway. So what can you do to prepare? Here are some suggestions, category by category.

Injury, Medical/Emotional Problems

The potential for injury in scenario-based training is relatively high because it is active and because it may involve using simulated or real-but-non-functioning weapons.

While you may not be able to eliminate non-weapon-related injuries, you can certainly take actions that will cut down on them. Conduct a site survey well before the training to identify and manage any hazards you find. Tape off unsafe areas and make them off-limits. Provide adequate and properly-fitting protective gear, and require people to wear it. Set ground rules on what actions are acceptable for a given scenario. Designate a safety officer for each scenario. Require participants to identify pre-existing injuries--and if they're at risk of harm because of an injury, don't let them participate.

You should--indeed you must--do everything humanly possible to eliminate any weapons-related injuries. The most important step you can take is to enforce a procedure to ensure that absolutely no functional weapons or live ammo find their way into the training area. Weapons that fire marking cartridges have made simulation training much safer. When I started doing simulation training, many trainers still used ordinary guns loaded with ordinary blanks. The potential for fatal mistakes was staggering.

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