Managing Downtime in Scenario-Based Training

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.

Involving students in managing the simulation can give students a sense of ownership of the training, and thereby increase their investment in making it work effectively. For the use of student assistants to work well, however, the instructor needs to be very organized and provide clear instructions. Especially in simulations that may involve physical force or use of training weapons, safety is paramount. An assistant who does not fully understand his or her role as a safety officer is an injury waiting to happen.


A third way to involve students indirectly in a simulation is to have them observe how the simulation plays out and then participate in the critique or "after action review" of the simulation. This option can mean that one simulation can become an effective learning tool not only for the two or three student officers who participate, but also for the many more who watch.

Whenever students are asked to observe and critique others, they automatically look at the situation from a different perspective. It's often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. By serving as an evaluator, students become quasi-teachers--and they learn from one another's mistakes. The student officer who went through the simulation reaps the benefit of multiple reviewers--some of whom may catch things the instructor missed.

Be prepared for each simulation debriefing to take more time if you use multiple evaluators. Everyone will have comments to offer, and sometimes people will have differing opinions as to whether the student officer acted properly. You may not be able to keep to a rigorous schedule, but the participants will learn from the discussion, even if they don't always agree.

All this assumes that you have one simulation going at a time. When the next pair of student officers is ready to go, you must either change the simulation entirely or just have a variation, so that it is not exactly the same each time. Remember, you want your scenarios to be winnable, but not too easy. After a student has watched two or three others go through a particular simulation, especially if he or she has been an evaluator, the surprise is gone, and with it, much of the challenge. Keep the situation new--or at least unpredictable.

If you are conducting simulations for testing rather than training, you cannot use these techniques to occupy your students when they are not directly participating as student officers. For testing to be fair, the experience needs to be as close as possible to the same for each person undergoing the test. Obviously, if you are using more or less the same simulation, the first students to see it are at a disadvantage. And if you use different simulations each time, it is difficult to ensure that they all test the same things and provide equal levels of challenge.

When you do simulation testing, the best option is to have several stations set up with different scenarios. Students then rotate from one to the next. Setting it up this way allows you to test different aspects of the law enforcement officer's job. For example, you can have one simulation that requires deadly force decision-making, and another that tests officers' interviewing skills. Still another may require physical control of a subject when deadly force is not appropriate.

While a multi-station simulation round-robin is ideal, it presents two difficulties: it requires a lot of personnel and very tight scheduling

If you have a class of 18, for example, you would ideally want to have at least four or five stations, and six would be even better. That way, at any given time, at least half of your students would be actively involved in working a simulation, with the others either traveling between stations or on break. But that would require a cadre of instructors and role players at least as large as the class! Few academies and even fewer in-service trainings have those numbers of personnel available. Even if you have enough people, they need to adhere to the schedule--if one of the stations runs long, because of a more detailed debriefing or an unexpected "plot twist," the slowdown backs up all the rest.

You can handle this problem one of two ways. The first alternative is to split the group in half so that one half is going through simulations and the other half is doing some classroom-based activity. Then the groups switch. If you only have nine students to put through simulations, you can have only three stations and keep everyone more or less busy.

The second alternative is to keep the group intact even while operating fewer stations. While students are waiting their turn, they can be writing an incident report about the station they just finished, or writing a crash report and filling out a traffic citation for a set-up accident (two cars positioned as if they had collided with written information provided about the drivers and their statements).

With a little imagination, you can find ways to give your students the benefit of experiencing simulation training without having to endure waiting around with nothing to do until it's finally their turn to play.