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Reality Based Training – Lessons Learned

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Warning: NSFW language and candid discussion below. Don't press on if you're not interested in a frank dialogue or are offended by profanity.

Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens

This,” I thought, “This would be a motherfucker.

I was walking into the bathroom of a local restaurant during a packed lunch hour – a confined space within another confined space, each with only one visible way out. If an active shooter event were to occur at that moment, I would have had some serious obstacles to deal with in order to secure my safety and those around me.

The moniker motherfucker, incidentally, was the term applied to the more difficult of many training scenarios encountered in the Sage Dynamics Citizen Response to an Active Shooter class I attended last year. It's a term that I stuck with me, and I apply it often as I contemplate my surroundings and my place within them.

Active shooter events are random and unpredictable, so it is fitting that instructor Aaron Cowan created active shooter training scenarios that covered a wide array of daily activities–everything from waiting in line for movie to tickets to sitting inside a doctor's office. It’s impossible to know all the myriad of ways these events may happen, and the best way we can prepare ourselves for them is to understand and experience what our bodies and minds go through during a stressful event.   Here are four big lessons I took away from the training.

Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens4

1. Reality Based Training:  Training in the most realistic way possible is the best way to prepare for these events.

States across the U.S. are issuing record numbers of concealed carry permits to citizens than ever before.   If you carry concealed, before you spend the money for another gun or begin stocking up on more ammo and gear, it might be time to take an honest evaluation of your abilities and skill set with that weapon.  [Editor's note – this is also sound advice if you open carry or just maintain a weapon for defense in the home.] Training for a variety of scenarios and understanding how your body and mind perform under the stress of such events cannot be overlooked, nor their importance underestimated.   That’s difficult to accomplish with paper targets and a timer on a square range.  Of course there’s no current method that will completely simulate reality and expose you to every condition and all of the various situations you may encounter; reality won’t even do that.  We can get close with reality based training though.

Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens6This course put students in various active shooter scenarios during which we had to manage bodily responses, make decisions under stress, engage a threat, and deal with other civilians and law enforcement on the scene.   The course used non-lethal marking cartridges, part of the Simunition FX system, that allowed us to point our weapon at a threat and engage.  It also allowed the bad guy to point a weapon back at us and engage.  That’s an entirely different training experience than shooting at paper that doesn’t move or shoot back.  Experiencing the stresses of a use-of-force in a training environment, as close to reality as possible, provides stress inoculation which has been proven to decrease reaction time, increase mental performance and dexterity and aid in a higher degree of overall effectiveness.  I realized very quickly with this type of training that understanding and experiencing how my body reacts to a use-of-force is critical to my safety and survival.

2. Mapping Our Brains for Success

What further sets reality based training apart from the average weapons class on the range is that participants are actually mapping their brains for future experiences.  In addition to experiencing the physiological bodily responses, there is a huge psychological component that occurs when we train this way.  It’s necessary to understand how the mind functions, its strengths and weaknesses, when confronting a use of force and how the body reacts to the stress caused by violent encounters.  Your body at the subconscious level will not know the difference between training and reality.  As Cowan explained,

“The mind is responsible for our conscious and unconscious reactions to stress and stimuli.  Some reactions are based on deep rooted evolutionary programming such as the ‘fight or flight' model, some are trained responses and others are phenomenon that cannot be readily explained or fully understood.”

Curious about the evolution of so called “marking cartridges”, specifically Simunition, and the impact it has on those who train with it, I tracked down one of the pioneers of Simunitions FX training, Ken Murray. I spoke with him about the development of reality based training.  Ken is the co-founder of SIMUNITION and author of Training at the Speed of Life, the Definitive Textbook for Military and Law Enforcement Reality Based TrainingKen and his friend David Luxton began developing simunitions in the late 80’s after they noticed recreational paint ball kids outperforming professional LEO’s and Military units. When they looked further into this phenomenon, they realized the paint ball kids simply knew how to get out of the way of the projectile; the paint ball was an effective teacher.   Ken and David started thinking outside the box and realized the potential for developing a similar system for law enforcement and military training.

When I spoke with Ken recently, he explained more about how powerful this training can be for us.    The brain often needs context, especially in situations of stress.  Ken describes the experiences gained from reality based training is like building a mental filing cabinet, a ‘Rolodex’ in the mind.  When events such as encountering an active shooter occur, the brain will flip through that filing cabinet seeking a relevant experience that will mold our decisions, bodily responses, and ultimately the outcome.   This was echoed by what Cowan taught in class. As he put it,

“Without mental reference points and an understanding of how you will react under stress facing a mortal threat, you would be ill equipped to face it.  Reaction time would be slower, decisions more rash and ineffective or worse, there would be no reaction at all.”

When we are scared, we stop thinking with our forebrain, where intellect lives, and we start dealing with the midbrain, where experience lives.   Ken Murray explains it like this,

 “The experience of having your life flash before your eyes is your brain in high speed retrieval mode, flipping through its ‘Rolodex’, looking for something that is at least similar that you can use in that particular situation. Fear is a normal physiological response to high-level danger.  Fear is a mobilizing emotion and when it kicks in, your midbrain goes to work, and very quickly it is going to ask one question; do I have the tools and talents to solve this? And if the answer to that is yes, then you go to exhilaration. If the answer is no, then you go to anxiety and that is when your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, your fight or flight response starts to spin up and weird physiological things happen to you.  Critical thinking is not one of those things because critical thought is not useful to survival.  The limbic system wants you out of there and it's going to hi-jack your brain and start doing something to get you out of there.”

Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens2 3. Choose Instructors Wisely

Reality based training allows you to set yourself up for success in high threat situations.  Choose your instructors and classes wisely; the more qualified instructors will make the difference between whether you are coding success or failure into your future.   They are crafting future experiences for their students.

“You are laying down tracks in the midbrain that has no judgment system, it doesn't care about good or bad, all it does is record experiential future playback,” explains Murray further.

You are creating the Rolodex your brain will be flipping through during a high threat situation.   Be extra picky about what makes it into your mental filing cabinet.   If you have a bad experience or failure in a class training environment under subpar leadership and teaching that is not resolved, that is not the file you want to pull when the time comes and you find yourself in the middle of an active shooter event.  Your life, and the lives of others may depend on it.

Safety during training is another consideration.  This type of training allows participants to break the first rule of firearms safety.  Simunitions FX training employs non-lethal marking cartridges so it allows us to point our weapon at something we don’t actually intend to destroy and because of this, safety is a top priority and a good instructor will teach and emphasize it.

Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens34. Two Paths

I’ve had a few recent discussions with people who talk about what they will do in an active shooter event.   Perhaps what they think they will do is what in fact they would actually do,  I don’t know.  I see events and my response to events as more fluid – and as someone who has had violence inflicted upon her, I realize things don’t always turn out they way I think they will.  There are two paths I can take when confronted with violent events.  One path is to advance towards the threat and engage.  The other path is to evade contact.    The decision to engage the threat or break contact will be dictated by circumstances and training.     It’s impossible to know all the various ways in which these events may manifest and because of that, you can’t always make the decision before the random event happens.  In addition to the chaos of the event, there are also a number of other factors to consider that are often not discussed, especially for concealed carrying persons.   Law enforcement response and other concealed carrying persons bring their own host of issues and is just scratching the surface of what needs to be considered.  Local laws also vary state-by-state on legal issues involving conceal carry and use of force.  And whether or not you have your children or other family members and friends with you may change your priorities and factor into your decisions.  In addition, as we’ve learned from the Navy Yard and Fort Hood active shooters, your concealed carry permit doesn’t always apply and you will most likely be unarmed in many types of locations.  Regardless of which path you think you will take when in an active shooter event, training in the most realistic way possible will help you determine paths of evasion, or how you fight, whether or not you are armed.Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens7

I do my best to avoid finding myself in the middle of violent events, but we all know that sometimes the event chooses us and cannot be avoided.  Restaurants, shopping malls, schools – active shooter events and other forms of violence can happen any time and anywhere.  Situational awareness including knowing where family and friends are (if they’re with me), understanding the layout of my location and keeping an eye out for things that stand out in a crowd are all things I strive to actively practice.  Regardless of which path we choose should the event choose us, we have the ability to set ourselves up for as much success and survival potential as possible by training realistically as often as we are able.Pucciarelli-Lessons Learned -Sage Active Shooter for Armed Citizens8

Any active shooter event is going to be a motherfucker.

Learn more about Sage Dynamics online, on Instagram right here or follow them on Facebook. Make sure you also check out their YouTube Channel.

Read another student's AAR of this same class here online.

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