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Reality Based Training: Do no harm

The unintended consequences of well-intentioned training

By Ken Murray

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There’s an interesting scene in the movie Patch Adams with Robin Williams where the entire medical-school class sits in the auditorium, listening to an introduction to the rigors of becoming a doctor. The dean of the medical school addresses the class:

“First, do no harm. What is implicit in this simple precept of medicine? The power to do harm. Who gives you this power? The patient. The patient will come to you at his moment of greatest dread, hand you a knife and say, ‘Doctor, cut me open.’ Why? Because he trusts you. He trusts you the way a child trusts. He trusts you to do no harm. Sad fact is, human beings are not worthy of trust. It is human nature to lie, take short cuts, to lose your nerve, get tired, make mistakes. No rational patient would put his trust in a human being, and we’re not gonna let him. It is our mission here to rigorously and ruthlessly train the humanity out of you and make you into something better. We’re gonna make doctors out of you.”

The class explodes in applause, yet it has no real understanding of the power of that message. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend such a message until you have first-hand experience in doing or seeing harm done to someone, especially where the intention was to do good.
So it is in the world of reality based training (RBT). Students enter a training venue expecting to prepare for their moment of greatest dread. The student comes to training, effectively hands the training staff a firearm and says, “Point this gun at me and pull the trigger.” Why? Because they trust the training staff. Like the patient, they trust the way a child trusts. They trust the training staff to do no harm. Unlike the rigors of medical school, however, there is no learning requirement, no set training program, no rigorous curriculum designed to train the humanity out of RBT staff to ensure they do no harm.

As a result, over the years much harm, both physical and psychological, has unintentionally been done. In the most heinous cases-in-point, officers are negligently killed during training. The most recent examples of this include the shooting death of 23-year-old police recruit Tara Drummond in Georgia. Earlier this year, 29-year-old police recruit Jimmy Ray Carty, Jr. died during a “boxing” drill in Texas.

Over the past six or seven years, two to three officers (on average) have been killed or seriously injured each year during simulation training exercises in North America. All of these incidents could have been avoided through the use of a simple yet stringent safety protocol.

The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) has studied training accidents that have occurred during tactical simulations and has determined these events share several common causes:

1. The safety was lax;

2. There was a misunderstanding of the design purpose of a training device;

3. There were misunderstandings about what constitutes a safe weapon or safe area; and/or

4. The participants received no instruction in how to ensure safe and effective RBT.

Recently, both the NTOA and the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) adopted written guidelines for conducting simulation training. Manny Kapelsohn, IALEFI vice president, authored an excellent set of basic guidelines for conducting simulation exercises, IALEFI Guidelines for Simulation Training Safety, available to agencies by contacting IALEFI. My own book, Training at the Speed of Life—The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Reality Based Training, provides even more extensive information on this topic, yet even this only begins to scratch the surface of the changes that must be made to improve the overall safety and training results for those who face the flames.

After analyzing the tragedies that have occurred during RBT, we can lump most into the categories of either carelessness or ignorance. In any high-risk endeavor, there is no place for the careless. Ignorance, on the other hand, is often the point at which the learning curve of any new undertaking begins.

Tragedy borne of ignorance usually turns the tide toward the quest for knowledge so similar tragedies will never occur again. RBT, however, can no longer be considered new, and we can no longer tolerate ignorance to its perils and pitfalls. Despite the fact the concept of RBT is brand new for many agencies, they don’t get the same pass other agencies got when the concept was new to everyone. With the vast body of information now available on how to conduct safe and effective RBT, doing so without learning all you can before you start is tantamount to negligence.

Simple vs. Easy

Setting up safe training is simple, but it’s not easy, and people tend to confuse the two. Simple implies a lack of complexity, whereas easy implies a minimal effort. Making high-risk training safe is as simple as eliminating the dangers, but ensuring this occurs is not easy because RBT requires a great deal of effort.

One of the major pitfalls of well-orchestrated RBT is that to the casual observer or untrained eye it looks very easy. Therefore, many participants come away from well-run RBT highly motivated to jump into starting their own programs. Unfortunately, some of them embark upon this style of teaching with little or no education or training in the complexities necessary to make RBT effective and safe.

The trend of agencies running out and purchasing RBT hardware without acquiring the necessary software (i.e., training on how to run RBT) must end. Such shortsighted enthusiasm is a recipe for disaster. Officer safety doesn’t come in a box. There is much more to RBT than meets the eye. It’s a good bet many of the trainers involved in the mishaps listed above were laboring under the misperception that RBT is easy. Running safe RBT is not easy, and trainers must obtain both a comprehensive understanding of the available technologies, as well as a thorough grounding in the underlying training psychology governing their effective use.

The tragic incidents cited above clearly occurred due to a breakdown in safety-protocol, but training deaths aren’t our only concern. Less obvious killers include incidents in which an officer’s training (or lack thereof) failed them during a lethal-force encounter. Outdated training paradigms can actually program officers for failure during such encounters. Some officers have literally stopped in the middle of a fight—they executed their incomplete “survival program” and quit. Officers have reholstered their guns in the middle of gunfights. Gunfights have occurred flat-footed without regard to movement or positions of advantage despite the availability of both, leaving the officer an easy target. Officers single-handedly approach a downed suspect to kick the gun out of their hands when they obviously should contain the suspect at gunpoint from a covered position until help arrives. Countless examples exist of poor survival programming occurring during well-intentioned training programs.

Despite this harm, some safety topics and outdated training methods remain, incomprehensibly, controversial and in use. Example: Some agencies still teach officers to draw a firearm with their finger on the trigger despite incontrovertible evidence this will lead to unintentional discharges and harm. RBT trainers often weave dangerous beliefs into their training philosophies, and stripping out these fibers of ignorance seems impossible despite the fact they have led to serious injury and death.

The medical community has diagnostic standards in place as well as specific rules and regulations aimed at furthering the first principle of medicine—do no harm. Too many trainers in the RBT community have paid minimal attention to following similar standards, and some trainers, either through ignorance or arrogance, have thrown caution to the wind by paying no real attention to even the most basic of safety requirements.

I had a student from a major metropolitan police agency come through one of my RBT instructor schools. During the practical exercise phase of the class, he was tasked as a safety officer, and despite what he had learned in the classroom and during other practical exercises, his safety protocol was extremely lax. During an after-action review of the exercise, we held a discussion of the ramifications of loose safety standards. His response:

“I understand why you do the safety checks the way you do, but when I get back to my agency, I’m not doing them that way. There’s no way we have the time for that. If I can’t trust my guys not to bring live weapons or ammunition into a training session, then if something happens it’s on them.”

This might not be exactly what I wanted to hear, but at least he was honest enough to say it out loud. I’m certain there are others who feel the same yet remain silent, choosing to ignore the safety standards taught because they believe those standards are too stringent or impossible to integrate into their training program. Due to the limitations of the length of this article, I can’t address the magnitude of the problem, but I hope you will begin to understand the importance of the stringent safety rituals and that you will agree they aren’t overly burdensome once they’re integrated into your training protocol.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Ignorant people remain truly ignorant of their ignorance, if that makes any sense, and as such make dangerous assumptions based on incomplete information. Far too many tragedies have resulted from a lack of knowledge or understanding of either equipment or procedures. I ask that you take a cold, hard look at your training program. Even those who consider themselves on the cutting edge often cut corners, and ultimately the throats of their students.

Albert Einstein stated, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we were at when we created them,” and this applies to fixing a flawed RBT program. It will take a significant shift in your own psychology and an investment of time and money—occasionally your own—to make the changes necessary.

Take the personal initiative to learn about the different training devices available. Dedicate the effort necessary to achieve proficiency in using those devices prior to using them in your training programs. Spend some time studying the art and science of RBT. Invest the energy necessary to build a well-grounded and carefully considered simulation-training program. If you are not willing to dedicate the time, money and level of personal commitment necessary to do RBT safely and effectively, please, don’t do it! People may die. People have died.
Beware the siren song of RBT. The Siren is a mythological creature whose song was so alluring sailors threw themselves to their doom to reach the source. In Margaret Atwood’s poem The Siren Song, we are cautioned:

    This is the one song everyone
    would like to learn: the song
    that is irresistible:

    the song that forces men
    to leap overboard in squadrons
    even though they see the
    beached skulls
    the song nobody knows
    because everyone who has heard it
    is dead, and others can’t remember.

The lure of RBT remains strong, and many trainers take the dangerous yet easy road, buying a little bit of gear and setting up an ad-hoc scenario-based training program. Avoid the easy path and do the work—there are lives in the balance.               

Ken Murray is the original cofounder of SIMUNITION®. He teaches instructor schools on how to set up and conduct safe and effective simulation training, and is considered the leading expert on reality based training. His new book, Training at the Speed of Life—The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Reality Based Training, is being praised as the “bible for reality based training.” Murray frequently writes for PoliceOne.com and is the director of training for the Armiger Police Training Institute. Contact him through the institute’s Web site (www.armiger.net).

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