Improving Learning and Recall

Improving Learning and Recall

Is there a role for humor while training officers on critical, life-saving, skills?

The flight attendant begins dolling out the obligatory, in fact, federally mandated, pre-flight safety instructions. If you’re a frequent flyer, your situational awareness is probably pretty low. You know the routine and it’s boring. If you’re an infrequent flyer, the monotone, or should I say “mono-drone” voice, of the lead flight attendant is enough to make you bury your eyes deep into the sky magazine. But, on this flight to Vegas, something’s different.

The flight attendant begins by saying:

“Our airline employs some of the safest pilots in the industry. Unfortunately, our flight today doesn’t have any of them, so you’d better fasten your seat belt and pay close attention to what I’m about to lay down. We’re (undisclosed) airlines and we’re going to take all your money“.

All eyes and ears were immediately fixated on the lead flight attendant. Trust me, I was on the flight and witnessed it first-hand. This was one of the best stand-up comedic routines I’ve seen in a long time. I actually enjoyed the flight briefing.

Funny Flight Attendant

What made a speech I’ve heard over 50 times so interesting? There are two explanations, both rooted deep in our cognitive brain. First, the speech was unexpected. We listen with baited anticipation to hear things that surprise us. That’s why talk show hosts and newscasters bait listeners with phrases like, “When we come back we’re going to show you an amazing video you’re not going to want to miss” and we wait to see it.

Second, it was emotional. Emotional messages (and it doesn’t matter what emotion the messages invoke) not only capture and keep our attention, but they help in the uptake and storage of those messages into long-term memory. That’s right, you tend to remember and recall emotional messages and events with much more accuracy than boring messages and boring events. How well does it work? That flight attendant greeting I shared with you was from a flight I took in 2017, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

Ok…for you instructors out there who are sharing important, life-saving messages – remember, make portions of your message unexpected and use emotions. Both will not only keep attention, but they will also help in learning and recall. Anyone who has attended one of my programs knows I use a healthy dose of both. The results are truly win-win. The attendees are satisfied with their day of learning on how to survive an active shooter event. I have the satisfaction of knowing those lessons are going to stick with the attendees for a long time.

I teach my students that when they go in for a job interview to use appropriate humor or some other tactic to separate themselves from all the other candidates.  If they don’t, they will be just a number. Use humor and emotional content to help your lessons stick with your audience.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

When doing training try adding emotional and humorous messages.  These will help the listeners retain and recall the lessons you teach them.  By using emotional and humorous messages, it will break up mundane training and help your audience be more attentive.

Action Items

  1. Discuss how to use appropriate humor in your next training lesson.
  2. Discuss creative ways to use emotional messages into training scenarios and training lessons.
  3. Discuss ways to make mundane trainings more memorable and improve the audience recall of your most important points.

 

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Tips For Improving Situational Awareness Through Training

Tips For Improving Situational Awareness Through Training

Realistic and repetitive hands-on training

It is vitally important that when training sessions are conducted, the instructor do everything possible to ensure the training is realistic (with consideration for safety and compliance with policies and standards). Every time an officer trains, their brain is learning. The more the training environment mimics the real environment they’re going to face, the greater the likelihood their brain is going to recall the lesson through pattern matching.

Repetition helps with information storage and retrieval. It also helps with muscle memory and the ability to perform tasks flawlessly. As the stress levels increase, we become creatures of habit and perform as we are trained. If the training is high-quality and repeated, the chances of high-quality performance under stress are improved.  When we train under stress our mind and body retain the lessons better and we will perform better when faced with a real emergency.

Make it emotional

Emotions trigger the release of dopamine which, in turn, aids in the storage of information. When an event triggers emotions, it is encoded more elaborately. This is just a fancy way of saying your chances of recall are vastly improved. Any emotion works. If, for example, you’re running an officer-down drill, make the radio traffic as realistic as possible to allow the officers to really feel the stress of the call. When stress triggers emotions, behavior changes too and it is good to practice skills in this altered mental state. Lessons learned under stress are far more likely to be recalled under stress. This is known as “context dependent learning”. Replicate the real environment in the learning environment to improve the memory of the lessons.  Setup your scenarios to be as realistic as possible.  Use simulation rounds as part of training.

Avoid hindsight bias

When evaluating an officer’s use of force incident, whether it is one from your own department or one from another source (e.g., a case study or a YouTube video) be aware you can suffer from hindsight bias. Stated another way, hindsight bias is “Monday Morning Quarterbacking”. It is taking what you know about the outcome and then applying your good (often thought to be better) judgment to the situation and coming away believing the persons involved in the use of force incident were not using good judgment in making their decisions.

 

It is always easy to look at an incident after the fact and find the fault in the decision making. Instead of asking, “Why did they do that!?” change your line of questioning to, “Why did what they were doing make sense to them at the time it was happening?” No doubt it made sense to them at the moment they were doing whatever they were doing. It may not have made sense after the fact, but that is the sort of judgment we want to avoid.

Don’t judge

It took me a long time to learn this. Too long, in fact. For years I judged the performance of others based on what I read, heard or saw and rarely if ever, did I take the time to really find out what was happening and how things unfolded. Every officer-involved shooting and use of force incident has a story behind the story. The events that led up to the incident can help fit the pieces together and improve understanding. Some of these back lessons can be gathered from FBI reports but even those reports are often devoid of some of the details and mindsets of the officers.

When you judge others you evaluate their actions using your non-stressed, rational mind. However, when they were making their decisions or deploying their actions they were using high stressed minds and making intuitive decisions. It’s not fair to judge this way because we are not, figuratively or literally, walking in their boots to understand what was going on. If you stop judging, you start learning more… a whole lot more!

What-if scenarios

Creating realistic scenarios, either hands-on or in theory, can aid in learning and how to develop situational awareness in police officers. This is a great learning tool and it’s not difficult to do. Simply take an incident you have responded to and add a small what-if event to it. We used to do this all the time when we worked night shift and would eat our lunch.

For example, you respond to a domestic scene between male and female roommates. The entire event goes nearly flawlessly. The training scenario might be, “What if both parties live there but one party has a guest over and the other party doesn’t want the guest there? Under these circumstances, what would or should we do differently?” Then talk through the decisions to be made and how the scenario might have played out if the what-if circumstances were present.

Avoid massive or unrealistic what-if scenarios for they will only serve to frustrate the participants and learning might shut down. For example, avoid the “What would we have done if a plane landed on the house while we were responding to the domestic?” Could it happen? Sure… ANYTHING can happen at a scene. But the likelihood is too remote to have a training benefit.

 

Once officers get good at basic what-if scenarios you can challenge them with circumstances that build in complexity. Just remember to take small steps. Allow the officers to solve the problem. Don’t give them the answer. They’ll learn more when they deploy their creative problem-solving abilities. Don’t hesitate to talk through why various ideas might or might not work.

Putting slides in the PowerPoint presentation

I often use the analogy that training and experiences stored in memory are like slides in a PowerPoint presentation. Each experience, so long as it was stored in long-term memory, is available for recall. Under stress, your brain searches through long-term memory. What’s it looking for? Not the complete file of the entire experience. There’s too many of those to sift through. It’s looking for a pattern match. Something that triggers intuitive judgment about what to do based on past training or experience. Each of these tips: Realistic and repetitive training, making training emotional, avoiding hindsight bias, not judging and what-if scenarios build and store richly coded experiences that can aid in the development of situational awareness.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

When you train, seek opportunities to tie-in situational awareness, building best practices into your scenarios. Never pass up an opportunity to talk about what situational awareness is… How you develop it… How you maintain it… How it can erode… How you’d know it has eroded… and How you can strengthen it once it has eroded.

You can’t train too much for a job that can kill you… and at the top of the list should be training on situational awareness. Together, we can make a dent in this problem.

Action Items

  1. Discuss how to create training scenarios that are realistic.
  2. Discuss creative ways to build repetition into training scenarios.
  3. Discuss ways to make training scenarios emotional. It will make memory storage more robust.
  4. Obtain a random use-of-force report and discuss what happened. Take special care to avoid hindsight bias and passing judgment on the responders.
  5. Create and discuss three what-if scenarios.

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

 

Distractions and Interruptions

Distractions and Interruptions

As I talk with my students in classes about the impact of distractions and interruptions on situational awareness, I find myself often being asked, “What’s the difference?” While there are distinctly different causes for distractions and interruptions, the outcome is often very similar…a reduction in situational awareness and the potential for a catastrophic outcome.

 

A distraction is something that draws one’s attention away from what they are supposed to be paying attention to, entirely unintentionally. For example, a police officer working at a scene might be distracted by a loud noise (e.g., an air horn, siren, a scream, or an explosion). This draws the officer’s attention to the source of the noise (though it doesn’t have to be a noise… it could just as easily be something visual or a smell). While the officer’s attention is focused on the sources of the distraction, however brief, their attention is drawn away from what they were giving attention to just prior to the distraction.

 

An interruption is something that draws one’s attention away from what they are supposed to be paying attention to, entirely on purpose. For example, an officer working at a scene might be interrupted by someone talking to them, by being called on the radio or by receiving a cell phone call. The interruption draws the attention of the officer away. However brief, attention is refocused on something new.

The reason distractions and interruptions are so dangerous for police officers are multiple fold.  First, emergency scenes are fertile ground for distractions and interruptions. There are often loud noises, bright lights, and lots of things to stimulate the visual and audible senses. Second, responders like to share information, and this is often done by radio or face-to-face communications. Each interaction is, without passing judgment on how important it may be, an interruption to the receiver’s thought process.

Every time a thought is disrupted by a distraction or interruption, the brain leaves one thought behind to pick up on the new one. When this happens, situational awareness is at risk because the return to the original thought may not be to the exact place where the thought was left. Or, even more dangerous, it’s possible the brain may never come back to the original thought at all, even though that original thought may have involved the performance of a critical safety task.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

The best way to avoid the impact of distractions and interruptions is to reduce exposure to them. If commanding this incident, this can be accomplished by being physically remote from direct contact to those stimuli that distract and interrupt. This may mean commanding from a short distance away from the action or commanding from within a vehicle. Designate someone to answer phone calls for you if involved in a major critical incident.

Remember a radio transmission is an interruption. Try to avoid having the entire department drawn off task to listen to a radio transmission that may not even pertain to their assignment. And while consideration needs to be given to avoiding tunneled senses it is important to stay focused on the task.  Teach your new rookie police officers and staff to only use the radio when necessary.  This will avoid numerous distractions and interruptions.

Action Items

  1. Describe an incident scene where a distraction impacted your ability to stay focused on your task.
  2. Describe an incident scene where an interruption impacted your ability to stay focused on your task.
  3. What are some tips and tricks you use to control distractions and interruptions while operating on stimulus-rich emergency scenes?
  4. Are your supervisors located remotely or in the thick of the action? What have you observed about their ability to maintain situational awareness based on where they are located?

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Assuming or Creating Risk

Assuming or Creating Risk

‘We will risk a lot to save a lot and risk little to save little.’

There are several variations on this saying, including: ‘Great risks will be taken to save savable lives; Moderate risks will be taken to save savable property; and, No risk will be taken to save what is unsavable.’ Risk management is an essential component to the development and maintenance of strong situational awareness. I believe these sayings relate to public safety and other high-risk environments. By its nature, public safety is risky and no catchy phrase is going to make it safer.  But there is a huge difference between assuming the risk and creating the risk.

First, let me say I am completely guilty of confusing assumed risk and created risk.  Here my story:

One afternoon I was working patrol when I heard over the radio a neighboring agency was in pursuit of a motorcycle that had just passed a bunch of cars on the shoulder.  The motorcycle was headed toward our city, and I advised I would assist in the pursuit.  I saw the neighboring agency officer going at a high rate of speed following a high-performance motorcycle.  I swung in behind them and called out that I would be involved in the pursuit and I would call the pursuit on the radio.  Before long I noticed I was way behind my fellow officer and he was taking huge risks that I was not comfortable with (i.e., Heading into oncoming traffic blindly at excessive speeds).  The motorcycle eventually crashed (and the driver survived).  No officers were hurt in the pursuit.  After watching my squad video and debriefing with one of my supervisors I realized that I had created risk in this event and I should have discontinued due to the safety of the public.

I am not judging the officer from the neighboring agency. There are plenty of critics out there who rant from their high perches of judgment, often in non-productive and disrespectful ways. Tuck this lesson away and recall it often: When we’re judging, we cannot be learning. I hope those who read this here will learn and not pass judgment.

Let’s apply the maxim: We will risk a lot to save a lot. Will the risk of pursuing this motorcycle be rewarded with a worthwhile outcome?

Police work is risky, in fact, life in general can be risky. Every police officer knows that. But there is a big difference between assuming the risk and creating the risk by performing tasks in ways that are unsafe or inconsistent with best practices and sometimes we hide behind the testosterone-laden mantra, “We’re cops. That’s what we do!”

I am a police officer with 15+ years of experience. But I also have other obligations (roles) that are important to me. I am a husband, a son, and a brother (both in the biblical and fraternal sense). Maybe I am a selfish person, but as I age, I look at the big picture and analyze if I am creating risk or if the call I’m going on is assumed risk.  If I am creating risk, it’s not worth it.

 

It takes a real hero to stand up for safety, especially if surrounded by others who are consumed by their self-anointed hero status.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

  1. Acknowledge the risks inherent in the work we do.
  2. Learn everything possible about how people get hurt and killed by reading near-miss and line-of-duty death reports.
  3. Discuss how to manage risk by using best practices.
  4. Ensure the risks being taken are worth the potential reward.
  5. Train on SOMETHING every day. The way to ensure peak performance is to make incremental improvements over time.
  6. Learn from the outcomes. Even when the outcomes are good, ask, “Did our actions make sense? What were the potential risks? What was the reward we were trying to accomplish?

 

Action Items

  1. Describe what your department does to support taking appropriate risks based on rewards.
  2. If your department had a similar experience (e.g., members were creating risk by performing tasks that do not match the conditions) how would you learn from it?
  3. Have you ever found yourself performing tasks that did not justify the risk? Did you stop or did you continue?

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

 

Active Shooter

Active Shooter

My students often ask me, “Mr. Moldenhauer, what’s the worst call cops could ever go on?”  My response is always the same, an active shooter call.  I have had my share of terrible calls in my career that will stay with me forever (i.e.  suicides, child deaths, and fatal car accidents just to name a few). However, I don’t feel any of these could ever be as bad as responding to an active shooter call.  

I couldn’t imagine the horror of showing up to a call that someone is actively killing innocent people.  We in law enforcement all took an oath to protect and serve. The trainings I have been to with my fellow brothers and sisters in blue makes me confident that we will do whatever we can to stop these horrible incidents as fast as humanely possible.

We have come a long way in training for these incidents.  I can remember when I first started as a police officer attending active shooter training, we had one goal in mind.  That goal was to take out the shooter as fast as possible.  While at training we would work on tactical and rapid response techniques on how to stop these violent suspects from killing innocent people. 

Taking out the shooter is still our number one priority. However, what do we do with the people that have been shot and are possibly dying?  We didn’t train on how to save these people when I first started. But now we have improved our training and adopted a new philosophy: STOP THE KILLING, STOP PEOPLE FROM DYING, GET THE INJURED TO A MEDICAL FACILITY.  We do this collaboratively with firefighters and EMS.

As police officers we must STOP THE KILLING.  After all, we are the ones with the guns and body armor.  We need to respond quickly. This was tough for us at first because we were taught that we may need to sacrifice our own safety to stop the killing.  When we would attempt to seek cover or use slower, more controlled tactics, our instructors would reprimand us and tell us to keep moving.  

They reminded us that every time we heard a gunshot, we were to presume someone was just killed.  Our instructors told us the priority of life goes as follows: lives of hostages, lives of innocent civilians, our own life, and lastly the killer’s life.  This was tough for us to get used to. Throughout the entire police academy and our careers, we were told officer safety is first priority.  However, in an active shooter incident, all bets are off and we may need to sacrifice our safety to persevere life.  

After the killer has been taken out or contained, we must STOP PEOPLE FROM DYING.  We do this by applying tourniquets on people and triaging severe injuries as quick as possible.  Several trainings I have been in lately have included assistance from firefighters and EMS personnel.  We form teams of firefighters and EMS personnel, protected by police officers, to assist in getting the most severely injured victims out as quick as possible.  

I am happy we have incorporated firefighters and EMS personnel into our training. I commend them for their bravery to enter these violent scenes with us.  Working together has produced some impressive results.  Our final priority is to GET THE INJURED TO A MEDICAL FACILITY.  Once the victims are outside the hazard zone, fire and EMS have the primary responsibility for triaging, treating and transporting. 

Something to keep in mind with training for active shooter incidents with your department is to keep the training as real as possible.  When we train in controlled environments, where we can slowly go through our tactical evolutions, results are near perfect.  However, the minute we introduce stress into the scenarios, police officer behavior changes and it impacts our performance. 

For example, we may introduce stress by arming the shooter and officers with simulated ammunition (i.e., paintballs) and crank up scary music with screaming and gunshots. This changes everything!  Armed with simulated ammunition, I have witnessed police officers, put under stress, shoot other police officers when they round corners, police officers shoot other police officers in the back, officers freeze in doorways and I have witnessed a complete breakdown of communications among teams.

You may recall from my previous article titled “Do We Train to Fail”, I noted practice makes permanent.  When we respond to one of these horrific calls we must be prepared to handle the extreme stress we are going to encounter.  Training that requires officers to perform under highly stressful conditions will improve critical thinking skills and tactical performance.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Situational awareness is key to officer survival and will help us save as many lives as possible when dealing with an active shooter.  Consider conducting mental rehearsals of active shooter scenarios. During a mental rehearsal you would image yourself in an active shooter situation and think through what the environment would be like. Imagine using all of your senses (e.g., what would you be seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling). Vividly imagine the situation in as much detail as you can.  

Practice “if-then” decision scenarios. For example, you might think: If I was in a hallway and I heard a gunshot on the floor above me, then I would ________ (fill in the blank).  Rehearse as many “if-then” scenarios as you could imagine, building complexity into the scenarios as you gain confidence.  

One of the benefits of mental rehearsals is two-fold.  First, mental rehearsals can reduce surprises.  Our critical thinking skills can be impacted by the element of surprise.  When you find yourself in a real-world situation that you’ve mentally rehearsed, you won’t be surprised.  You’ll be expecting it and you will have already thought through one (or more) decision options.  

The second advantage of mental rehearsals is they will help improve our prediction skills.  In active shooter situations, we have to always be thinking ahead of our current action – being mindful of not only what is happening right now, but also thinking about what is going to happen next (e.g., What’s going happen around the next corner?).

When practicing “if-then” scenarios and performing mental rehearsals, think beyond yourself.  Imagine the actions of other members of your team (e.g., other officers, fire, and EMS personnel who may be with you).  

Discussions

  1. Discuss how active shooter training under stress changes officer behavior.
     
  2. Discuss the benefits and challenges you can anticipate from working collaboratively with your local fire departments and EMS provider.

  3. Share some examples of mental rehearsals you have performed. 

  4. Share some of the specific “if-then” scenarios you have practiced.

 

About the authors:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.