Reality Based Training: Build a Program, Not a Project

Too many trainers tasked with the job of creating tactical simulations lack the underlying educational architecture needed to develop effective training scenarios. This is akin to trying to grow grass on concrete: You can spend a lot of money on expensive sod, but if you lay it on a surface that either lacks or will never support the development of a root structure, it's destined for failure.

I've been working in the field of simulation training since the late 1980s, and I'm still trying to figure things out. Simulation training is an extremely complex field that bridges all other fields. As Lieutenant James Como from the Ocoee (Fla.) Police Department says, "It's the hub from which all the other spokes of law enforcement training radiate." Its principles function as the operating system that allows whatever tactical "software" has been installed to run on the complex computer in our heads. Without the correct operating system, the computer and the software are just pricey pieces of relatively useless equipment.

Amazingly, when it comes to reality based training (RBT), the most up-to-date operating system itself is actually quite simple. The problem is people try to run their supercomputer on an outdated system. Do you remember the whole Y2K issue? When society was allegedly on the verge of collapse? The threat of collapse was much greater than the reality, but that didn't make the problem itself any less troubling. There really were systems that would have broken down if the problem hadn't been discovered and corrected. Ultimately, the most elegant response was to replace the operating system with an updated system rather than try to patch the outdated code. Similarly, replacing your agency's training "operating system" when installing a reality based training program works best. Here's why.

Many departmental training models are based on a patchwork of ideas that have evolved over the years. I often hear of trainers who return to their department after attending my instructor school being told, "Put two hours of tactical simulations into your eight hours of block training the coming year." Effective simulation training programs don't work that way. You can't jam the square peg of simulation training into the round hole of conventional training programs. Well, you can, but it's not the most effective way of doing things. If you do, it's not a simulation-training program it's a simulation training project.

The difference? A project is usually something an agency allows some innovative trainer to undertake usually to shut him up. It receives a little bit of money, is constantly under threat of cancellation and is shoehorned into some other overcrowded time slot. A program, on the other hand, is evolutionary. Researched. It addresses a need. It's often chaotic in the sense that the previous system must be abandoned in order to establish the new system. It's costly. Time consuming. It receives funding and makes the budget. It should grow over time.

In order for RBT to be most effective, it must be a program. The problem: Due to its evolutionary/revolutionary nature, it falls into the disruptive-technology category. The term disruptive technology was coined by Clayton M. Christensen in his book The Innovator's Dilemma. According to Christensen, a disruptive technology is a new technological innovation, product or service that eventually overturns the existing dominant technology. It's both radically different from the leading technology, and it often performs worse than the leading technology according to existing measures of performance. Therefore, it's often heavily scrutinized and subject to severe cuts at the first hint of trouble or inconvenience.

When David Luxton and I started the company SIMUNITION back in the late 1980s, our FX Marking Cartridge was a disruptive technology heavily resisted by conventional training theorists. It eventually became the dominant training cartridge for force-on-force training, which is itself a disruptive technology.

Not too long ago, force-on-force training was prohibited in law enforcement training circles. When I introduced many of the concepts behind pointing guns at people for training purposes, they were heavily resisted. Now, most of those concepts are the de facto standard for force-on-force training exercises. When I introduced the concept of "shot ain't dead" for officers participating in force-on-force exercises, it was heavily resisted by those who had adopted the concept of force-on-force training because it cut down on the amount of fun role players could have. Now it's the gold standard for survival mindset theory.

Despite all of the gains made in RBT in such a relatively short amount of time, force-on-force training remains a disruptive technology and likely will for the foreseeable future because it doesn't fit the conventional training models. As such, trainers embarking on this pathway must understand the realities of implementing such a technology. Because it will be heavily resisted, you will need allies. Because it has the potential for physical and emotional harm, you will need training. Because it's expensive and time consuming, you will need ongoing support and even more allies. Because it's complex you will need to ensure simplicity.

In the best of all possible worlds, an effective simulation training program will operate over time. I believe the model of conventional training needs to change from the conventional "what are we going to do this year in block training" to a 3 5 year training progression where each officer goes through 20 30 training scenarios over that time in building-block fashion.

Fill Up Their Bag

It's been said officers enter law enforcement with zero experience and a bag full of luck, and training staff must fill up that bag with experience before the officer runs out of luck. A cohesive simulation program will do this by analyzing officer needs based on what's happening in the community.

Where are you getting hurt? Where are you getting sued? Where are you failing? Study the incident reports. Study the national trends. Look at the reports of officers killed in the line of duty. It's almost never the guy with the MP5 and the grenades. It's the diminutive housewife off her meds, bent on destruction. Or the polite guy with no record who gets out of his car during a vehicle stop to ask a question.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. If the basic skills of equipment management have been instilled and trained to an effective level of competence, and the psychological parameters of threat recognition have been ingrained, it's irrelevant if the perpetrator is a housewife with a knife, a school kid with a pistol or a terrorist with a rocket launcher, it'll be Officer: 1, Bad Guy: 0.

Until next time, train hard and train safe.

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