"The risk of leaving this up to fate and experience is the damage that can be caused in the learning process. Physical and academic scars can result from experiential learning."

Situational Awareness Training

Situational awareness is a standard and complex term in law enforcement. When teaching recruit officers situational awareness, trainers often leave it to fate and the development process. But, repetition and experience are historically the keys to learning situational awareness over time.

The risk of leaving this up to fate and experience is the damage that can be caused in the learning process. Physical and academic scars can result from experiential learning. These risks are magnified during training, where “life lessons” serve as the primary educational mechanism.


Field training officers (FTO) is another common and complicated term in law enforcement. The FTO carries an enormous responsibility: Teach situational awareness without leaving scars. It is no small task to teach it correctly so your young officer is safe on the job and can be a dependable backup.

Whether you train in the San Jose Model or the Reno Model, there is just one question: What can the FTO do to help accelerate this process appropriately? The answer is that it’s complicated. Here are three strategies every FTO should use to train this life-saving skill effectively.

Situational Awareness is a Mindset

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 recruit officers. As a training officer, you must get into your student’s mind. Since most of us are not mind readers, this can be challenging. Here are two tips:


FTO visualization: This training technique is helpful in the recruit’s early phases. FTO visualization is where the training officer nearly continuously speaks out loud to the student about what they see, hear, smell, and most importantly, how they perceive those observations. FTO visualization allows the student to listen and begin to absorb and translate the environment as their training officer does.


When done right, FTO visualization combines experiential learning with an objective lesson. It may sound like this, “I’m going to wait until I have a wide shoulder to stop the car and position my patrol car about one to two car lengths behind the violator to have enough distance between us if he exits the car with criminal intent. I’m not going to walk between my car and the violator’s car, so I avoid telegraphing my position. I’m going to make a passenger-side approach giving me a better visual of the violator’s movements and keeping me safe from passing traffic. By the way, don’t slam your door!”


Recruit visualization: Recruit visualization is the reverse of FTO visualization and is especially useful in the later stages of training after the training officer has helped develop a foundation of situational awareness. The training officer must pay attention to the existential part of the lesson. You might hear the recruit speak out loud about the patrol car position, the approach, 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.

Environmental & Behavioral

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


A man with a knife threatening people as he walks away from an officer into a busy shopping mall is a significant threat that gives officers little to no discretionary time. The combination of behavior and environment creates a volatile scene and requires officers to act fast, possibly with lethal force.


We have a drastically different response when you change one element about the situation. Consider the same behavior in the mall but with a man in a wheelchair. You could jam the wheels on the chair, overturn the chair, have mall security close, and lock the doors. The level of force required to eliminate this threat is likely much lower.


The discretionary time we gain by changing the environment (wheelchair) is beneficial. If we trained our new officers to think through the relationship that the environment and behavior have on each other, they might react adequately.

Inverted Training Scenarios

Field training officers are not limited to training solely in the field. Use your department’s defensive tactics room or a classroom to run reality-based scenarios when possible. Remember, KISS, keep it simple stupid! There is no need to run fifteen-minute scenarios to train situational awareness. Most of the time, you can make a big difference in performance with several short scenarios that run thirty seconds to a minute. There are two things to keep in mind while designing and acting out scenarios.


Be sure to set the environment and tell your role players what behavior you want them to exhibit. The combination of environment and behavior will lead your recruit officer to the desired response.


Inverted Behavior: 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 different behavior should prompt a different response from the recruit.


The Inverted Behavior Situational Awareness Scenario: The recruit has probable cause of a misdemeanor crime at night in an empty shopping mall parking lot. 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 Environment: Ask your role player to act out the same behavior within each scenario run while you change the environment. The change in the environment should elicit a different response.


The Inverted Environment Situational Awareness Scenario: The role player suspect is armed and threatening others. The environment is a misdemeanor with probable cause, daylight hours, busy parking lot at a shopping mall—next run, daylight, and a clear backstop behind the suspect—next run, night time, and the suspect is in a vehicle.


The fact is training situational awareness is necessary and complicated. The subject is complex and includes tangible tactics and intangible cognitive mastery. The training officer must be part tactician and part mind reader. A single article barely scratches the surface of want we need to know to train our recruits appropriately. This highlights the need to select talented Field Training Officers ready to pass along what they know about the art and science of police work and situational awareness.

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