Book excerpt: Tips for improving situational awareness through training

The following is an excerpt from the new book, How Smart Police Officers Use Situational Awareness to Improve Safety, by Richard B. Gasaway and Drew W. Moldenhauer. Click here to order your copy and use code BLUE38 to save 10% off list price.

By Drew W Moldenhauer and Richard B Gasaway

It is vital that when conducting training, the instructor does everything possible to ensure that the training is realistic (taking into account safety and compliance with policies and standards). Every time an officer trains, his brain learns. The more the training environment mimics the real environment they will encounter, the more likely their brain will remember the lesson through pattern matching.

Repetition helps store and retrieve information. It also helps with muscle memory and the ability to perform tasks flawlessly. As the stress level increases, we become creatures of habit and do what we have learned. When training is quality and repeated, the chances of quality performance under stress improve. 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 information retention. If an event triggers emotions, it is coded more elaborately. This is just a fancy way of saying that your chances of getting a call back are greatly improved. Any emotion works. For example, if you’re conducting an exercise with officers, make the radio traffic as realistic as possible so officers can 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 much more likely to be recalled under stress. This is called “contextual learning”. Replicate the real environment in the learning environment to enhance lesson memory. Set up your scenarios to be as realistic as possible. Use simulation laps as part of training.

Avoid hindsight bias

When evaluating the incident of an officer’s use of force, whether it is an incident from your own department or one from another source (such as a case study or YouTube video), be aware that you can suffer from hindsight errors. Put another way, hindsight bias is Monday morning quarterbacking. It’s about taking what you know about the outcome and then applying your good (often thought you’re better) judgment to the situation and believing that the people involved in the use of force weren’t using good judgment in their decisions to have.

It’s always easy to look back at an incident and find the flaw in the decision making. Instead of asking, “Why did they do that!?” change your questioning to: “Why did what they did make sense to them at the time it happened?” No doubt it made sense to them at that point moment they did what they did, sense. It might not have made sense in hindsight, but that’s the kind of judgment we want to avoid.

do not judge

It took me a long time to learn that. Actually too long. For years I’ve judged the performance of others by what I’ve read, heard, or seen, and rarely, if ever, have I taken the time to really find out what’s happening and how things have played out. Every incident where an officer shoots and uses force has a story behind the story. The events leading up to the incident can help put the pieces together and increase understanding. Some of these lessons can be gleaned from FBI reports, but even those reports often lack details and official thinking.

When you judge others, evaluate their actions with your unstressed, rational mind. However, when making their decisions or performing their actions, they used a highly stressed mind and made intuitive decisions. It is not fair to judge in this way because we are not following in their footsteps, figuratively or literally, to understand what was going on. When you stop judging, you learn more…much more!

What-if scenarios

Creating realistic scenarios, either practical or theoretical, can support learning and develop situational awareness in police officers. This is a great learning tool and it’s not difficult to do. Just take an incident you’ve responded to and add a little what-if event to it. We used to do this all the time when we worked the night shift and ate our lunch.

For example, they respond to a domestic scene between male and female roommates. The entire event runs almost flawlessly. The training scenario could be: “What if both parties live there, but one party has a guest and the other party doesn’t want the guest? What would or should we do differently in these circumstances?” Then discuss the decisions you would need to make and how the scenario would have played out if the what-if circumstances had been in place.

Avoid massive or unrealistic what-if scenarios as these only serve to frustrate participants and potentially stall learning. For example, avoid asking, “What would we have done if a plane had landed on the house while we were responding to the house matters?” Could it happen? Sure… ANYTHING can happen at a crime scene. But the probability is too small to have a training advantage.

Once officers are comfortable with basic what-if scenarios, you can challenge them with circumstances that add complexity. Just remember to take small steps. Let the officials solve the problem. Don’t give them the answer. They will learn more by using their creative problem-solving skills. Don’t hesitate to talk about why different ideas might or might not work.

Insert slides into the PowerPoint presentation

I often use the analogy that memorized training and experiences are like slides in a PowerPoint presentation. Any experience, as long as it has been stored in long-term memory, is available for retrieval. When you’re stressed, your brain searches long-term memory. What is it looking for? Not the full file of the entire experience. There are too many of these to search through. A pattern match is searched for. Something that triggers an intuitive judgment of what to do based on previous training or experience. Each of these tips: Realistic and Repetitive Training, Make Training Emotional, Avoid Hindsight Mistakes, Avoid Judgment, and What-If Scenarios Build and store richly coded experiences that can help develop situational awareness.


As you train, look for ways to incorporate situational awareness and incorporate best practices into your scenarios. Never miss an opportunity to talk about what situational awareness is…how to develop it…how to maintain it…how it can erode…how you would know it had eroded…and how to strengthen it when 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 situational awareness training. Together we can counteract this problem.


  1. Discuss how to create realistic training scenarios.
  2. Discuss creative ways to incorporate repetition into training scenarios.
  3. Discuss ways to make training scenarios emotional. It will make memory more robust.
  4. Get a random report of the use of force and discuss what happened. Be especially careful to avoid retrospective bias and judgments about the respondents.
  5. Create and discuss three what-if scenarios.

About the authors

Drew W. Moldenhauer, MS, is a 15-year Minnesota law enforcement veteran. During his career, he has served as an Active Rifleman Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor, and Field Training Officer. He is currently an officer with the Osseo City Police Department. Certified Master Instructor in Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for educating his clients on this very important topic. He earned a master’s degree in Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He can be reached at [email protected]

Richard B. Gasaway, Ph.D., CSP is an authority on human factors, situational awareness, and high-risk decision-making processes used in high-stress, high-consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief, and incident commander. His PhD research involved studying cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors affect situational awareness and influence high-risk decisions. He is the founder and CEO of Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at [email protected]

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