To see the positive effects of reality-based training at operational level, it is important to understand the underlying psychology of human behaviour. The methodology used in a progressive training program should function at both the physical skill level as well as at the cognitive and pre-cognitive level. Instructors should understand the psychology of encounters and be able to dissect participant actions to effect any necessary changes through remedial training. The scenarios should be simple; advanced training is just the basics done smoother and faster.

The goal of a scenario is to expose operational weaknesses, and strict scenario development protocols should be in place to effectively accomplish this goal. Instructors should have the skills to help participants transcend inappropriate responses; they should understand that these erratic behaviours may occur and why they occur. By changing the underlying training philosophy and restructuring training, unsuitable responses can be clearly observed during the scenario, thus changing training from experimental to experiential.

The six principles for designing effective reality-based scenarios are: define reality, enforce safety, train to policy, train for reality, include stress and train to prevail.

Define Reality

It is unnecessary to invent situations when developing scenarios. Statistically, it is in the routine situations where issues occur or poor decisions are made. Use situations that officers are going to deal with. If there are not many problems internally, look to industry trends and statistics.

Do not waste training time for something unlikely to occur in operational reality. Avoid the following situations when writing scenarios:

  • Catastrophic events: sometimes all possible tactical challenges are combined into a single scenario, but this overwhelms Observe participant deficiencies in simple scenarios and fix them progressively by connecting proper decision making with effective action in a stressful setting to create a neural pathway to successful future responses in similar real-life circumstances. This is accomplished with drills that build in speed and complexity once mastered at the lower levels.
  • Single source experiences: one person writing all scenarios presents a myopic view of problems. Define the problems an agency is facing and those most likely to cause future trouble and get input from different personnel.
  • Unrealistic surprises: boredom can affect role players and cause counterproductive behaviour. If participants are doing well, do not mess with them. Add intensity in future scenarios, but do not allow role players to make things up. Impromptu surprises are not useful in building situational awareness, but they can undermine the training program.

Having several different endings for a scenario allows it to branch to different conclusions depending on participant responses. It provides role players with variety to break up the monotony of doing the same thing over again and challenges participants at their own level. There is also the possibility that they might discuss scenarios with others, so alternate endings limits the ability of participants to come in forewarned to various threat cues and makes each participant determine the correct action.

Enforce Safety

Writing scenarios so responses and outcomes are known allows instructors to focus on participant behaviours, especially various mechanical and tactical errors that many participants demonstrate during scenarios. Instructors should bring them to the participants’ attention during training. If unsafe training practices are allowed in training, there is a possibility that in a real confrontation that issue may lead to a safety infraction. It is not just firearms handling; improper use of radios, batons, tasers, chemical agents, or even verbalisation can cause issues if not corrected in training.

If legal process follows an incident, the training participants received will invariably be scrutinised. A participant using questionable techniques or poor judgment in training without correction may be unintentional by instructors, and the problems probably would have been corrected had they been observed. The way that scenarios are often run does not allow for this level of observation because there is often so much activity occurring during a scenario that instructors look more at the big picture rather than analysing specific behaviours. Controlling all aspects of a scenario, from design and predictable role player behaviours, frees instructors to focus attention on participant behaviours.

Train to Policy

Instructors often unintentionally violate policies in the interest of scenario flow. Participants should be commended for demonstrating good judgment, even if it breaks the continuity of the scenario, as the objective is not only to integrate knowledge and skills into functional operational strategies, but to get participants thinking. If participants do something right, give them praise not criticism.

In addition to assuring participants understand and function within policy, scenarios can clarify policies in situations that are unclear, controversial, or conflict with operational safety principles. If a policy requires revision, write a scenario around it, put some people through it, catalogue the results and present them to administration, asking for clarification on the policy governing such an occurrence. Engaging in discussions about different situations, tactics and strategies begins the process of conditioning a potential response for a future event. People function better in situations that they have experience with, even if it is simply having thought through an issue.

Cataloguing decisions intellectually and experientially helps future decision-making process by integrating previously processed information with experientially integrated information. The five levels of integration in the brain and body for processing information are data, information, knowledge, understanding and conditioning. Data is analogous to a person doing an internet keyword search. Then he sifts through data for information, which is specific and relevant to his needs. He can then choose specific information for knowledge, but it does not provide practical experience. Understanding requires hands-on experience for conscious competence, which is unlikely in a confrontation as forebrain functioning is substantially curtailed during survival stress. Conditioning involves repetitions of a desired action to create unconscious competence for proper performance under stress. There must be a clear neural pathway predicated upon experience to achieve a desired action. Without substantial repetitions or an emotionally significant experience tying the desired response to the stimulating situation, performance of the optimal response is unlikely to occur.

When training is designed to cause failure, it programs an aversion response to real-world situations similar to those experienced in the scenario.

Train for Reality

In reality-based training, the abstract aspects of a training situation are more important than the concrete aspects, although both are important. The question is whether a participant is actually going to make a decision to use a force response and if that decision is the correct decision for that situation. Technical proficiency is second to that.

It is common in scenarios to observe bad habits formed during conventional training which are detrimental in real-life encounters. Proper habits should be developed so that equipment management skills can be tested under stress. Using the actual operational gear permits instructors to observe deficiencies a participant might have in working with personal equipment. Functional training versions of personal equipment demonstrate how well a participant will employ them on the street. Participants who perform well under normal training conditions often struggle to perform relatively simple actions under simulated stress, such as drawing a weapon or switching between force options. During scenarios, watch participants and observe their thought processes at certain critical points. Failing to ask about curious or questionable behaviours loses much of the value of using functional training props to highlight deficiencies.

Using realistic props and training versions of equipment is a valuable source of information for trainers since they can observe all kinds of inappropriate behaviours from participants. The more realistic the situation and the more authentic the props, the higher the quality of the learning experience. Participants should be issued with all response options, regardless of the level of force required during a scenario. There are numerous training versions of duty equipment available, as follows.

Firearm: a training firearm should be the actual duty firearm which has been modified using a conversion device, or a dedicated training version of the identical weapon.

Chemical agent: a training version of operational spray should be used to simulate a chemical agent, with the same actuator and nozzle type so handling and spray pattern effectiveness can be evaluated. This allows instructors to determine if a stream, cone or fog pattern hits role players in an effective manner if participants are taking environmental factors into consideration. Make sure participants know they are to react to everything happening during a scenario as if it were real. If their chemical agent is inoperative or ineffective, they must do something else.

Impact weapons: there are training versions for expandable, straight and side handle batons. If a baton is a reasonable response during the scenario, role players can be safeguarded against the ‘force relation to target’ principle. Some protective suits are designed to withstand the impact from actual baton strikes, but this is not recommended as there are areas of the body still unprotected.

Handcuffs: there are training versions of handcuffs modified with a release feature that permits them to be opened without the need for a key. Searching for a handcuff key and bending a role player into position to unlock handcuffs can be inconvenient and often unnecessarily painful.

Tasers: there are training cartridges that do not conduct electricity for use with actual units. However, the probes are still the same as operational cartridges, so proper protective equipment and role player training is important. Firing actual darts at role players in a suit provides the best realism, but some agencies cannot afford this quality of training all the time, so an alternative is to take the cartridge off the firing device. When a participant points the taser and the red dot appears in an area of an effective hit, they pull the trigger and the taser sound activates. There should be a line written into the scenario as to whether the taser ‘works/does not work’, and role player scripting should occur whether darts are fired or simulated. Contact stuns should not be used as the current can jump up to two inches.

Radios: using operative radios has a positive effect, as making participants communicate through the radio makes them manage a piece of essential equipment just like reality. After the scenario begins, direct all communication with the participant through the radio, with the exception of administrative discussions. If they do not communicate clearly, do not respond or request clarification. Some training facilities use a dispatcher, which creates radio traffic, so each participant has to pay attention to the calls that are directed specifically to them just as they would on the job.

Miscellaneous items: there are various items and devices that may be present during actual situations. It is not necessary to use an actual distraction device; beyond the physical danger, a role player dealing with the effects of an actual distraction device is less effective. Role players can be scripted to do anything, including how to respond once a tool is employed.

Role player props: using realistic props for role players is essential. A real driver’s licence with the role player name and photo permits them to produce actual documents, helping participants focus on the situation and stay in scenario. Investigate local thrift stores for role player clothing and props. Casualty simulation is difficult, given the level of protective equipment role players wear, but dummies that are bloodied up make excellent training props for simulated trauma victims. Applying make-up to role players under a mask is not effective and using full-face shields so that the face is visible is dangerous inside a training environment where non-lethal training ammunition is in use.

Environment: the more realistic the setting, the better it is for conditioning proper participant responses. A realistic setting should be easy to find since many excellent and available training locations are often passed over for use because agencies believe they have to find a site to fit their training devices instead of the other way around. With the various training aids available, instructors should be able to utilise actual structures and environments to provide participants with appropriate realism. The training philosophy hierarchy is performance objectives, setting, training devices – start with the training objective, find an appropriate setting and then choose the training devices friendly to that environment. Not all structures or training environments will permit marking cartridges, but not all training scenarios necessitate the use of these. Choose devices to fit the setting, not the other way around.

Silly scenarios and clownish role player actions often result from instructor boredom, inadequate preparation, lack of training or experience of instructors, but they dilute the scenario and indicate to participants that training is not serious. If the scenario retains its realism and professionalism, the participant can focus on solving the training problem and develop operational confidence.

Include Stress

Under stress, a person’s ‘animal’ brain resorts to primitive instinct. Actions learnt during stress are difficult to displace, but there are positive effects conditioned through effective use of stress in training, since the brain chemistry present in stress is similar to that experienced during an emotionally significant event. To understand the power of this, think of phobias. People are born with three innate fears – sudden motion, loud or abrupt noises and sudden approach; everything else is learned. Phobias result from powerful learning experiences and can affect a person for life.

It is possible to condition survival skills and responses as deeply as some phobic responses. Repetition in training takes time to create a pathway that eventually becomes the route of choice for actions. It takes a significant event to change that path. An emotionally significant event in the psyche is an instant, clear and obvious deeper pathway carved into the psyche. The brain creates neural connections between the forebrain (cognitive thought) and midbrain (autonomic functioning) so that, given a certain stimulus, there is a direct and pervasive connection to action. This is perhaps the most convincing argument for making participants prevail during a stressful training experience. The pathway can either lead to success or failure; it places a fork in a participant survival psychology, and there is a powerful obligation for instructors to send the participant down the correct path.

Making training realistic without sacrificing safety creates a powerful learning agent and also functions as stress inoculation. Once participants have a sense of using strengths to deal with fears they can recall it for assistance in new territory. Training that does not instill confidence is wasted and can create an aversion to respond appropriately to critical incidents.

Start with simple scenarios that test one or two simple choices prior to moving into more complex issues. This process helps participants understand and condition simple, tactically correct responses to stimuli presented by a subject. When participants have clear and simple choices, their decision loop speeds up (Hicks Law), confidence levels are higher and success is more predictable.

Competency training requires building a simple decision tree and connecting the decisions to specific actions; effective responses under stress must emanate from a programmed dominant response. To best assist participants to identify and respond to certain threats, role players should initially present threats slower than in real-life situations, which permits participants to program dominant responses. Responding successfully to a simulated experience where they are challenged at a stressful but not catastrophic level means they own that experience in the future, and the speed and efficiency of future actions will improve since skills are being moved from conscious to unconscious competence.

Build a foundation slowly and improve by building speed. Without basic conditioned skills, increasing speed only leads to failure. Once a skill is mastered, there must be maintenance training to maintain proficiency, and there should be skill development by placing stressors on it to improve. That is where advanced training has its place and how participants progress from the simple to the complex. Long-term retention of learned skills is due to the progressive nature as well as the intensity levels of training. It is impossible to progress without dedicated practice periods. The learning occurs between the peaks, so participants must learn to keep practising rather than give in to frustration and quit.

For competency-based training to be successful, it must:

  • start with basic skills until proper form is developed
  • be progressive so skills perfected are combined into complex combinations
  • be realistic so state-dependent learning is transferred into similar real-world situations
  • be relevant so training is focused on events likely to occur within job parameters
  • be comprehensive so training integrates skills with emotional/cognitive aspects of an encounter

Reality-based training allows instructors to observe participants using judgment to make decisions and taking actions based on experience. The desired outcome is to provide the participant with experience on which to draw in future encounters. Through experiential training, instructors are able to ascertain the areas where participants need additional practice and experience. The brain does not differentiate between good and bad performance – it merely catalogues actions in response to stimuli. Poor performance must be corrected experientially. Immediate remediation is essential to program an optimum response, correcting behaviours before the negative experience gels in the subconscious.

Reality-based training provides stress inoculation for participants. Knowing what the physiological effects are in advance of a stressful encounter and having the awareness to recognise the physical manifestations of stress when they occur provides participants with critical information. But simply knowing about those effects is not enough; they should be experienced.

Train to Prevail

Making it difficult or impossible for participants to successfully complete a scenario is a result of untrained role players, badly designed scenarios, lack of training preparation from instructors, or unclear training objectives. The tendency of instructors to stop a scenario immediately after force is used deprives participants of positive training experiences and giving participants the experience of death during a simulation exercise is not an effective way to teach operational survival.

Participants should always emerge from a scenario having prevailed through superior tactics or perseverance. Allowing role players to give up when participants have not prevailed conditions dangerous behaviour. Participants might get beaten/stabbed/shot during the scenario, but this is appropriate if it is written into the scenario. When these events occur, the scenario does not end until the participant does something that contributes to their survival, after which it continues until it reaches a natural conclusion. The negative response of participants giving up should always be replaced with a positive survival response.

Teaching participants to succeed means not letting a scenario conclude until they prevail.

The objective of reality-based training is to develop a participant’s ability to respond to critical and life-threatening encounters by basing future responses on past successful experiences.

Preparing participants for reality is highly rewarding. In scenarios where both the knowledge and tactical abilities of participants are tested in context, it is important to create a sufficiently stressful situation to provide them with the experience of physiological and emotional arousal and ensure they have the strategies to overcome the negative effects of stress. It is then essential they emerge from that encounter as winners. It is through this process that participants are programmed with solid survival skills available to them during decisive moments in real-life situations.

Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.