Taming Your Nightmares

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.

Whatever system you use, be certain that every person (including you!) is triple-checked for weapons and ammo before entering the training area--and triple-checked again if they leave and return for any reason. The triple-check works like this: you check yourself for any weapons or ammo, then your partner checks you, then the instructor or safety officer checks you. Emphasize that the check is a search--not a superficial airport-screener pat-down.

You can avoid most medical and emotional problems by choosing your role-players carefully and requiring everyone to complete a wellness check or Fit-For-Duty form. If you use officers for role players, you probably won't have to worry about them becoming emotionally distraught from the action of a scenario. Civilian role-players, particularly if they are not trained actors, may find some aspects of police training upsetting, especially the use of (realistic) deadly force. It helps to spend some time beforehand telling them what to expect. A wellness check won't catch every medical issue (after all, about one-third of the time, the first warning sign of a heart attack is sudden death), but it will identify some conditions and allow you to assess whether participation in a particular scenario might put someone at undue risk.

What if your prevention efforts aren't enough, and an injury or medical emergency occurs? Be ready to manage it. Generally, that means making sure of two things:

  • You have first-aid kits on scene and readily available
  • You and all scenario leaders know how to get EMS help to your site

A first-aid kit for scenario-based training should be a step up from a typical Band-Aid®-and-aspirin home kit. Include a variety of sizes of dressings and bandages, cold packs, trauma shears, cardboard or flexible aluminum splints, pocket mask and gloves. If possible, have an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on scene. Your goal should be to make it possible to manage severe bleeding, broken bones, cardiac or respiratory emergencies until EMS is on scene. If you can do all that, you can certainly deal with the more typical scrapes, bruises, and sprained ankles.

Know how to get EMS to your site quickly, particularly if you are doing full-scale simulations involving weapons. Getting EMS may be as simple as calling 911 and waving the ambulance up the driveway. On the other hand, if you are at a remote site with long travel distances, you might want to consider either having a medical unit stand by on site, or being ready to land a medical helicopter. Identify a good landing zone and mark it so the pilot can find it. Have a contingency plan if bad weather grounds the chopper.

Role-Player Discipline

In an earlier column, I addressed the question of whether to use officers or civilians as role-players, and noted that there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Either way, you need to train and prepare your role-players properly. Good scenario-based training depends on well-designed scenarios with clear learning (or testing) objectives that are tied into your state's law enforcement training curriculum. Unless your role players understand the objectives, you can't expect them to keep the scenario focused on those objectives. Similarly, unless you give your role-players directions for what they can and cannot do, you can't expect them to stay within the parameters you want.

The best approach is to develop a standard format for scenario development. Include a description of the situation and the training objectives. Give each role-player a fairly detailed description of his or her character: include background information, the character's "agenda" in the scenario, and guidance as to the appropriate attitude to display. Include information as to what the actor may do and may not do. You can't actually script the scenario, because you can't control--or totally predict--what the "officer" will do. Developing a detailed scenario description will make it easier for role-players to stay on track, while still giving them plenty of ad-libbing flexibility.

What if things still go awry? Be sure you have a scenario leader for each scenario and instruct that person to stop the action if it goes too far afield. And if you have a role-player who refuses to stay "in bounds," even after being told the limits--don't continue to use that person as a role-player. You might still be able to use him or her in another capacity, but be careful. Scenario-based training is no place for loose cannons.

Site Security Problems

Because scenario-based training, particularly simulation training, is so realistic, you have to make sure that only those directly involved in the training are on site. A civilian stumbling upon a scenario-in-progress is bad enough. A law enforcement officer stumbling upon a scenario-in-progress could be very much worse. Imagine what could happen if an officer walked in on what appeared to be a hostage situation with the bad guy holding a gun to the hostage's head. Now that's a nightmare!

You can do a number of things to help secure your site, including locking doors, if you will be inside a building (be sure you know who has keys), posting sentries on the perimeter if you're outdoors, and putting up "Police Training in Progress" signs at every entry. Be sure that your local 911 center is aware that you're doing training at the site. Let neighboring jurisdictions know about it as well. Find your sites well in advance of the training and sit down with the property owner or manager to plan for security.

All the planning in the world will not guarantee absolute security. The two most important things you can do to prevent a tragedy from a breach of security are to ensure that every scenario has a safety officer and to empower every single person on site--including the trainees--to stop the action for safety problems. Make it clear that anyone who sees a safety violation should immediately shout "Stop scenario!" (or other agreed-on signal) and that when that happens, EVERYTHING STOPS.

Equipment Problems

If you are using equipment in your training, be assured that rascal Murphy will be active. The camcorder battery will be dead, or the blunt force trauma gear will be missing pieces, or the marking cartridges will be left behind. The solution to equipment problems, like other problems, is to prepare beforehand and have a Plan B. A day or two before the training, make sure you have assembled and checked all the needed gear. When you develop scenarios, include in the scenario description any needed equipment. Then when you choose your scenarios for a particular training, you can easily make an equipment list and check off items as you get them ready.

If possible, have spares--batteries and radios, for example. Decide what to do if equipment malfunctions or never makes it to the training site. If you can get along without it (a camcorder, for example), go ahead with the planned training. It would be nice to have a videotape, but it's not critical. If the missing or malfunctioning equipment is vital to safety (protective gear), substitute a scenario that does not require it rather than go ahead as planned. "The show must go on" is a fine sentiment for the theater, but not for training. Safety always comes first.

When you arrange for the training site, discuss with the owner or property manager what will happen if something on the site gets damaged. Of course, you will try to avoid any damage, but trainees can get pretty excited--especially if they're rookies or academy students. Having advance arrangements about payment for damage, whom to notify, and so on takes one more layer of stress off the event itself.

If, on the night before training, you know that you have prepared as best you can for the "predictable unpredictables," then you can sleep soundly, knowing you've done your best. As my mother used to say, "Even angels can do no more." You've got it covered...well, except for the asteroid.