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Reality training: Make it real, but keep it safe

Reality-based training helps officers prepare for potential scenarios on the job; as such, injuries might be expected, to an extent


Correctional officer Jarvis Barrion leads a class of new recruits on a march at a training facility in Forsyth, Ga.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Recently, a corrections officer in Scotland lost a civil suit where she was seeking compensation following a riot training accident.

According to reports, Officer Bernadette Smith was attending a one-day training ran by the Scottish Prison Services when she was injured when a fellow officer, playing the role of an inmate during a mock riot, threw a piece of wood which struck the riot shield that Smith was holding.

Smith injured her wrist, shoulder, back, and neck during the training exercise and sued for damages. In the ruling against Smith, officials cited the safety precautions taken by the training facilitators as well as the necessity of the scenario-based reality training as considerations for the ruling.

Regardless of the outcome, this ruling brings up considerations that must be taken into account when training is being conducted.

What is reality-based training?

The primary characteristic of reality-based training is that it introduces actual scenarios that individuals may be confronted with at any time during the performance of their duties. The scenarios allow trainees to test their skills and gain additional knowledge to draw from in actual events.

In addition, and perhaps just as valuable as gaining knowledge, trainees build confidence in their ability to handle situations. This combination of knowledge, skill development and cultivation of confidence make reality-style training a vital component of any tactical training plan.

Ideally, reality-based training introduces the participant to stressors which will induce a basic level survival stress response. The presentation of a scenario, and the subsequent heightened anxiety level, creates some level of stress inoculation within the participant as they learn to successfully confront performance challenges in a relatively safe and controlled environment.

The ultimate goal of reality training is, therefore, to prepare students to respond appropriately during situations where they would otherwise experience a level of mental and motor skill deterioration. Through the presentation of scripted and planned scenarios, students are able to problem solve in a manner that is more consistent with what they may see in reality.

While it is impossible to exactly replicate the stress created in an actual encounter or to simulate every imaginable situation, there is no denying the value that this training has in mental and physical preparation.

Make it real, but keep it safe

As is the case with any type of tactical training, safety is always paramount. Because of the volatile scenarios often being presented in reality-based training, the potential for injury to students is always present. It is because of this inherent risk that the focus on safety becomes even more important. When incorporating reality-based scenarios into chemical agents, firearms, defensive tactics or disturbance control curriculums the associated safety risks can be magnified without the proper precautions.

Prior to the implementation of any reality-based training, some planning and discussion should take place among facilitators with regard to the “script” that should be followed during training. Ground rules should be established that should be followed and communicated with all participants prior to training.

Depending on the nature of training, the designation of a safety officer(s) should take place that will assign duties to specific individuals whose responsibility it would be to monitor the scenarios for any actions that violate the previously established ground rules and that could present potential safety hazards.

Once the rules for training have been established and scenario monitors designated, all participants and role players should be briefed in great detail about their roles in the training scenario. This briefing should include some sort of cue that is understood by everyone to be used when training should immediately stop. A whistle, sound device, or a specific verbal signal should be established that would alert all participants that activities should immediately cease. Whether the signal is “Stop,” “Cease fire,” or “Butterfly,” it should be something that is easy to remember and is a clear signal to everyone that there is a potential safety concern.


As mentioned earlier, regardless of the safety precautions taken, administrators, facilitators and participants need to understand both the value of scenario-based reality training as well as the potential for injury.

The goal is to manage the risk potential and understand that some types of injuries are expected and unavoidable, while others cannot be allowed or tolerated. For example, if a reality-based firearms training is taking place, it’s understood that due to the dynamic nature of the movements, an individual could turn awkwardly and sprain an ankle. While unfortunate, this is an expected and tolerated type of injury. An individual being accidentally shot by a fellow trainee due to the failure to take necessary safety precautions would be an example of an unallowable occurrence.

With proper structure and guidance, corrections staff can continue to get the best training possible while staying safe. When scenario-based reality training is conducted properly, it’s an invaluable asset for both corrections staff and administrators, as well as for the public they serve.

Rusty began his career in 1997 working as a correctional officer at a men’s medium security prison. While working in the prison, he also served as K-9 sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He was a member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team for 15 years and held law enforcement instructor certifications in defensive tactics, chemical agents and firearms. In 2013 he became a full-time academy instructor where he instructed courses in several topics within the field of corrections and law enforcement. In 2019 he moved to his current position where he serves as a Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief. Rusty received his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Bellevue University and completed graduate work at Fort Hayes State University. Rusty can be contacted by email.