Repeat your force-on-force training scenarios

The most powerful training tool we have for the use of deadly force is a scenario in which the officers being trained and the role players are armed with paint munitions. Several names are used for these events: force-on-force training, scenario-based training, and reality-based training.

My old training partner — Sergeant Marty Brown — and I started our version of such training in the late ‘70s using modified .38 Special casings that used the primer to launch a cotton ball projectile. Our methods make me cringe when viewed in today’s vastly improved safety environment, but we quickly recognized the power of this training technique.

Nowadays we have variations of popular duty weapons modified to use dedicated paint marking projectiles, which offer increased safety levels and a splatter of paint to end the “no you didn’t hit me,” arguments. What hasn’t changed since the earliest days of reality-based training is the need for a tightly scripted scenario and role players who stick to the script. Role players can quickly figure out how to “win” a scenario, which is the opposite of what we need for effective training.

If the officer(s) being trained react properly, the role player’s job is to lose.

My rules for developing force-on-force scenarios require that the situation be short, practical, and winnable. Since the officers will need full face and throat protection, to which many will add body armor, heavy clothes and gloves, they will quickly become hot and uncomfortable. So, make the scenarios short enough to keep the officers’ attention span before discomfort wears them down.

A practical scenario will simulate a real-world event or one that is within reason. Sending a solo officer into a room with five bad guys is eminently impractical, though some instructors think that is the appropriate way to make their training “tougher” than the real world. I agree that a training scenario should be very demanding, but it must be winnable.

While I require scenarios to be “winnable,” there is no requirement for the officer(s) to win every time. If they use poor tactics or fire blindly, they deserve to fail and be spanked with “sims” hits as a reminder to knuckle down and do a better job next time. But, if they do everything as they should, the officers must be rewarded with a “win.”

In some circumstances, force-on-force scenarios are used as a test. At our academy, the completion of phase three training requires each cadet to successfully negotiate some “sims” scenarios. If a student repeatedly fails the “test” scenarios, they can be terminated from the program.

Most force-on-force scenarios are used for in-service training of journeyman police officers, so those scenarios are rarely a test. Instead, we are striving to train a new skill or maintain and polish an existing skill. Many instructors, however, refuse to run an officer or team of officers through the same scenario twice.

In discussing this with one instructor, he felt the officers should always, “see a new scenario because if they re-do one they’ve already experienced, they’ll ace it.” I feel the tendency for an officer to “ace” a scenario they’ve previously seen is the exact reason we should conduct our training that way.

My 30+ years of research and experience have convinced me humans can be “programmed” much like a computer, but unlike a computer they need to have the programming downloaded multiple times for maximum effectiveness.

Let’s say you are training officers in Immediate Action/Active Shooter Response techniques, what we commonly refer to as Rapid Deployment. One scenario we use in our two-day course puts a team into a situation where one subject is being held down on the ground by a second role player. The commanding role player will be yelling “I’ve got him, I’ve got him,” while holding a handgun by the muzzle end of the pistol. We are simulating a situation where the “coach” has disarmed the active shooter and is controlling him until the police arrive on the scene.

This is the all important “NO SHOOT” scenario that should be included in all training programs. Still, about one-third of the teams fail to burn through the fog of battle to listen to the role player’s words (“I’ve got him”) or recognize that he is holding the pistol in a non-threatening manner.

When a team fails the scenario by shooting the “coach,” we debrief carefully to avoid any tendency to beat up the team. Still, we do not gloss over the fact that they just shot the hero of a school attack. We deliberately make this scenario very short, so there is no long team movement through hallways before they reach the role players. This allows us enough time to run any failing team through the exact same scenario again. We don’t switch role players, change weapons or alter the scenario in any way, and they invariably do a near perfect job on the second run.

Opponents of this “re-do” philosophy feel the second run is a waste of time because the team is guaranteed to do it correctly — the officers already know what will happen.


We want them to do it correctly, that’s at the heart of effective scenario-based training. If I had my way we would require an officer or team to re-do a failed scenario at least twice. Their internal hard-drive records every training event they complete, good or bad. Since the failure run has already been recorded, I want them to overwrite that programming with two or more correct runs of that same scenario.

Police officers don’t learn effectively from failure, although failure is one of the fundamental steps in the adult learning process. After they have failed at a new skill, it is essential that officers follow up with a successful manipulation of the new task. Anybody can grab a “sims” pistol and a box of rounds and dream up a scenario where they, the role player, can always win. A good instructor will structure a training program where their officers leave with confidence in their new-found skills. Not false confidence, but the self-assurance that comes from botching and then overcoming a problem.

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn

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