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3 strategies to help FTOs teach situational awareness and improve officer safety

What can the FTO do to help properly accelerate this process?


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This feature is part of Police1’s Digital Edition, “Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.” Download the guide here.

By Sergeant Dan Greene

Situational awareness is a common and complicated term in law enforcement.

Historically, situational awareness is seen as a skill learned over time through repetition and experience. Trainers often leave it to fate and the maturation process to teach a junior officer situational awareness.

The risk of leaving this up to fate and experience is the damage that can be caused in the learning process. Both academic and physical scars can be the result of experiential learning. These risks are magnified while training in the field where “life lessons” are the primary educational delivery system.

Field training officer (FTO) is another common and complicated term in law enforcement.

The FTO carries a large responsibility: Teach situational awareness without leaving scars. Teach it properly so that your young officer is safe on the job and can act as a reliable backup to their peers one day. No small task for sure.

The question is, what can the FTO do to help properly accelerate this process? The answer is that it’s complicated.

Here are three strategies every FTO should use to effectively train this life-saving skill.

1. Situational awareness is in the mind

Think of your understanding of the world around you. How you perceive potential threats is all in your mind. For anyone else to understand how you perceive the environment you’re working in, you need to communicate it. The same is true for your student officers. As a trainer, you need to get into the mind of your student. Since most of us are not mind readers, this can be difficult. Here are two tips:

  • FTO visualization: This training technique is specifically useful in the student’s early phases. This is where the FTO nearly continuously speaks out loud to the student about what the FTO sees, hears, smells and most importantly, how they perceive those observations. This allows the student to listen and begin to absorb and translate the environment in the same way their FTO does. This is a combination of experiential learning with an existential lesson. It may sound like this, “I’m going to park about 10 houses down from the target house and avoid parking under this streetlight. That way we can approach on foot in the shadows. This is a safer approach and helps us in case of an ambush. By the way, don’t slam your door shut!”
  • Student visualization: This is the reverse of FTO visualization and is especially useful in the later stages of training after the FTO has helped develop a foundation of situational awareness. It’s important here that the FTO not omit the existential part of the lesson. You might hear the student speak out loud about the shadows, the streetlights and the car door, but you may not hear them explain the “why.” Be sure to ask them why they are doing what they are doing and how their observations help improve their officer safety.

2. Situational awareness is both environment AND behavior

An FTO needs to train a new officer to be acutely aware of both the environment and people’s behavior. On top of that, the FTO needs to train how the two of them are related to one another.

A man with a knife threatening suicide as he walks away from an officer into a busy retail box store is a serious threat that gives officers little to no discretionary time. The combination of behavior and environment creates a volatile scene and requires officers to act quickly, possibly with a high level of force.

Consider the same behavior in the same store, but with a man in a motorized wheelchair. Change one element about the situation we are in, and we have a drastically different response. The level of force required to eliminate this threat is likely much lower. Maybe jam the wheels on the chair? Maybe topple the chair over? Maybe clear the store and close doors?

The discretionary time we gain by changing the environment (wheelchair) is beneficial. However, if we didn’t train our new officers to think through the relationship that the environment and behavior have on each other, they might not react appropriately.

3. Inverted training scenarios

FTOs are not limited to training exclusively in the field. When possible, use your department’s DT room or classroom, and run some reality-based scenarios. Remember, keep them simple! There is no need to run 10-minute scenarios to train situational awareness. Most of the time, you can make a big difference in performance with multiple, short scenarios that run 30-60 seconds. Here are two things to keep in mind while designing and acting out scenarios:

Intentional design: Be sure to specifically set the environment and spell out to your role players what kind of behavior you want them to exhibit. The combination of environment and behavior is what will lead your student officer to the desired response.

Inverted scenarios: Set a specific environment and keep it in place for multiple runs through the scenario. With each run through that environment, change the role player’s behavior. The behavior change should elicit a different response from the student. Then, invert the scenario. Ask your role player to act out the same behavior within each run of the scenario while you change the environment. The change in the environment should elicit a different response. It might look like this:

  • Scenario: Misdemeanor crime with probable cause, nighttime call for service, empty parking lot at a retail box store. Begin scenario. The role player suspect is armed and threatening others. Next run, armed and threatening self. Next, run, not armed and aggressive. Next run, not armed and compliant.
  • Inverted scenario: Role player suspect is armed and threatening others. The environment is a misdemeanor with probable cause, daylight hours, busy parking lot at a retail box store. Next run, daylight and clear backstop behind the suspect. Next run, daylight and the suspect is in a vehicle.

In summary, training situational awareness is critical and complicated. The topic is involved and includes an introduction to tangible tactics and intangible cognitive abilities. The trainer needs to be part tactician and part mind reader. A single article with three bits of advice merely skims the surface of what we need to know to train the topic properly. Fortunately, our Field Training Officers are talented officers ready to pass along what they know about the art and science of situational awareness.

About the author

Dan Greene is a 25-year veteran and sergeant with the Chandler Police Department in Chandler, Arizona. Dan spent over 14 years involved in the FTO program at the Chandler Police Department. As an FTO and an FTO Sergeant, Dan has played a role in training over 250 new officers and nearly 30 newly promoted sergeants in the Chandler Police Department. Dan is currently the executive director of the National Association of Field Training Officers (NAFTO) and helped NAFTO build the nation’s first and currently only IADLEST-certified Basic FTO Certification Course. In 2017, Dan was honored to be recognized by the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) as the ILEETA Trainer of the Year.