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].