Managing Downtime in Scenario-Based Training

Simulation training is great--but how do you keep the rest of the class busy when only one or two at a time can play?


You have designed a domestic violence simulation for your recruits. Two student officers are dispatched to a 911 hangup. Upon arrival, they find a female role player with a torn shirt and a bruised face and a male role player with an attitude. Both deny any problem, claiming that the 911 call was in error. Your student officers have to separate the parties, interview them, decide if a crime has been committed, and if so, make an arrest.

Great--but what do you do with the other 16 recruits in the class?

Scenario-based training, including simulations, has justly earned a reputation for being some of the most effective training you can offer, providing that it is properly designed and safely executed. But anyone who has actually organized and delivered simulation training will tell you that often the most difficult aspect of this kind of training is the logistics. Particularly troublesome is how to manage downtime: if you have two or three recruits or in-service officers going through a simulation, how can you keep the rest of the group occupied and productive?

The alternatives vary, depending on whether you are conducting training or testing. If you are doing training, you have several choices for how to engage those not acting as officers:

  • Involve them as role players
  • Use them as instructor assistants
  • Recruit them as observers/evaluators

Each of these alternatives has benefits and drawbacks, but all of them are better than having a bunch of students standing around twiddling their thumbs. Here are some of the tradeoffs with each choice.

Role Players

Using other students as role players definitely keeps them engaged, but how well this option works depends on the type of simulation. The domestic violence scenario at the beginning of this article uses a limited number of role players. The two principals must be well prepared for their roles, with loose scripting, clear limits on what they can and cannot do, and direction for how to respond to various actions the "officers" might take. It may be difficult to provide enough depth in a quick briefing before the simulation begins. On the other hand, some other students could play peripheral roles, such as a neighbor who heard the fight, or a relative of one member of the warring couple.

In a different sort of scenario, such as a call set in a restaurant or bar, other students can be patrons, creating the need for the "officers" to deal with crowd-control issues as well. Someone playing the role of a bar patron does not need the same in-depth preparation as does the person playing the role of a battered wife or abusive husband, and the number of role players is much more flexible.

You may want to consider ways in which you can use additional students as role-players when you design your scenarios and simulations. On the other hand, you need to be careful to make their roles limited. The problems of role-players being tempted to stray from the script is only compounded when you have more role players with less training.

Instructor Assistants

A second alternative is to use uninvolved students as extra hands and eyes. Any simulation requires a secure location, and sometimes that means posting sentries to keep other people out of the training area. Extra students can be safety officers, perimeter guards, assist with weapons checks, and so on. These kinds of jobs require some training, but often that can be taken care of ahead of time by going over safety procedures and ground rules with the entire group.

Students can do other tasks to help the instructor as well. For example, a student can be in charge of videotaping the simulation. Students can assist with equipment such as protective gear.

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