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Training to enhance tactical situational awareness

Repetition in training develops memory — memory fosters confidence, decisiveness, and decision-making speed in combat

Whether you’re responding to patrol runs or you’re out on SWAT operations, understanding how to manage situational awareness can greatly maximize your chances for success.

Situational awareness is one component of what I refer to as the “strategic thinking triad.” It can be applied to all tactical training including SWAT operations and patrol response. This triad consists of:

  1. Situated cognition;
  2. Cognitive thinking skills;
  3. Situational awareness.

I addressed cognitive thinking skills in a previous article. In this article, I will focus on situational awareness as it applies to police operations and training.

Defining Situational Awareness

In the “Army Field Manual,” situational awareness is defined as “knowledge and understanding of the current situation which promotes timely, relevant and accurate assessment of friendly, competitive and other operations within the battle space in order to facilitate decision making. An informational perspective and skill that fosters an ability to determine quickly the context and relevance of events that are unfolding.”

In the context of SWAT operations, situational awareness refers to the unit’s ability to determine the relationships of the factors that are present – such as perception, comprehension and projection – and form logical conclusions concerning any threats to the individual officer or team, as well as to the mission objectives.

Simply, situational awareness is a process our minds go through for just about everything we do. For example, when you’re involved in a high-speed pursuit you are cognitively processing numerous pieces of active intelligence simultaneously. As the pursuit continues, you act on the decisions you make from that information. You may process information such as:

  • What dispatch is conveying to you over the radio about the car and suspect;
  • The orders your command officers are providing over the air;
  • Your conveyance to the dispatch center of information relevant to the chase;
  • The speeds which you are chasing the suspect;
  • The intersections and signals you are approaching and passing;
  • Officer safety concerns and various other parameters.

In this scenario, your ability to process various and numerous pieces of active intelligence is your situational awareness.

Some officers have a natural ability to manage their situational awareness. From participating in (and listening to) these pursuits unfold, you know that it’s usually obvious just by their radio brevity that a particular officer is just as smooth as if you were speaking to them in the coffee shop. However, other officers lose their cool and find it necessary to yell or scream into the radio, pass the lead chase car, or even try and take over the pursuit entirely. These officers have lost control of their situational awareness and tend to make a stressful situation even worse.

When an officer loses the ability to manage their situational awareness they can create more problems than they’re already dealing with, simply because making incorrect tactical decisions can endanger other officers. At a minimum, they can create (or contribute to) other factors which would then have to be mitigated as well.

The good news is that through training, officers who lack the innate ability to manage their situational awareness can be trained to a higher level. That doesn’t mean that all officers can be trained to an acceptable level but that is an entire different problem in itself. As tactical commanders, team leaders, patrol sergeants, uniformed command officers, and trainers we can attempt to bring these guys up to speed.

When you encounter an officer who doesn’t respond to the training, they should be identified as a “potential hazard,” and if they’re involved in a critical incident later, the commander will hopefully take the necessary precautions to minimize that officer’s ability to lose situational awareness, potentially jeopardizing the safety of the other officers involved in the incident.

Command officers, you must keep in mind that it’s your responsibility to recognize when an officer is a danger to himself and other officers. You must not hesitate to mitigate the problem.

To improve officers’ situational awareness through training you will need to take your training objective such as “decision-based live fire” or “SWAT operations” or “patrol response” and identify “objective measures” and “subjective measures” to monitor.

Objective Measures

Objective measures can directly asses situational awarness by comparing an officer’s perceptions of the situation to the reality of the sitauation or training objective. By evaluating objective measures from the officer’s perceptions of the situation and comparing them to what is actually happening, you can score the accuracy of their situational awareness at a given moment in time during the training scenerio. Thus, the assessment provides a direct measure of situational awareness and does not require operators to make judgments about situational knowledge on the basis of incomplete information.

Training objective measures can be gathered in one of three ways:

  1. Ask questions related to the training objective in real-time, without stopping, as the task is being conducted
  2. During an interruption in the training, stop and ask questions about the task
  3. After the training objective is complete, conduct a critique of the performance

Subjective Measures

Subjective measures directly assess situational awareness by asking individual officers to rate their own situational awareness or by the observed situational awareness from other individuals watching the officer in the training scenario. Subjective measures of situational awareness are relatively straightforward and simple to conduct. However, several limitations should be noted. Individuals making subjective assessments of their own situational awareness are often unaware of the information they do not know.

Self-ratings may be useful because they can provide an assessment of the operator’s degree of confidence in their situational awareness and their own performance. Measuring how situational awareness is perceived by the operator may provide information as important as the operator’s actual “situational awareness”. Over confidence or lack of confidence in situational awareness may have just as harmful of an effect on an individual’s or team’s decision-making as errors in their actual “situational awareness”.

Subjective critiques of an individual’s situational awareness may also be made by experienced observers such as peers, commanders, or outside experts. These observer critiques may be superior to self-ratings because they have more information about the true state of the training scenario, objective, and environment than the operator who is performing the training.

When an officer encounters a situation that offers multiple cues to its meaning and consequences, those that are relevant to our accessible concepts tend to be noticed more easily, and the situation tends to be interpreted in terms of that concept rather than another one. Basically, we see things as we want to see them. The officers “situational awareness,” depends on knowledge, motives, emotional state, experiences, expectations, fatigue, and other variables.

SWAT operators with a keen sense of situational awareness have the ability to put their “game face” on prior to any operation. This holds true for uniformed officers responding to high-risk patrol runs. This process of putting your game face on is actually an individual’s ability to heighten their senses and alertness to the task at hand. Some operators may mentally rehearse their individual roles in the operation. Some may listen to music on the way to the scene and others can make the transition at a moments notice.

Once you’re in this heightened state of situational awareness, you’ll have the ability to pick up on bits of intelligence that you may have missed otherwise.

When conducting training you will witness this firsthand as you observe the operator work through the training objective. However, keep in mind that the reinforcement from the objective and subjective measures must remain positive to be effective. When in training we all make mistakes, and some officers’ mistakes create negative emotions that can interfere with learning and also lead to withdrawal. Some officers become anxious at the thought of doing any training at which they may be viewed as “failing.” Teaching situational awareness can increase the officer’s performance and confidence.

The key to success is to slow the officer’s response to a speed in which he can process the information, prioritize the information, and then act decisively. Once the officer develops this skill, even his perception of slowing the decision-making process actually becomes faster.

Imagine yourself involved in the high-speed pursuit as mentioned earlier and you have all those active bits of information to process as the pursuit continues. Officers must prioritize each bit, process it, and not hesitate to act upon those decisions. Sometimes not choosing a course of action can be worse than making the wrong decision.

Take any training objective and introduce stress and multiple problems at once for that objective. When you introduce those problems provide several potential options to solve them. Identify the objective and subjective measures and create the critiques and questions for the officer’s measures. Give the officer a short period of time and force them to make decisions based on the information that you provided. Afterwards, critique their performance and discuss all of their options. Remember, to keep it positive!

Continue this style of training and make it very repetitive – repetition in training develops memory. Memory fosters confidence, decisiveness, and speed for making decision in combat. Once this training becomes repetitive to your officers then you have helped them develop confidence in the face of adversity. From this comes increased situational awareness.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.