The number one mistake when using a training simulator is focusing too much on the simulation training technology. Agencies are often convinced that, in order to make the most of their investment, they need to maximize the amount of time spent seated in that simulator and navigating a virtual world.
“This is a case of less is more,” says Chuck Deakins, the lead training specialist for FAAC’s Training Group. Deakins has decades of experience training first responders and helping agencies create their own simulation-enhanced training programs. He’s found that the best simulation training programs sharply limit the length of each simulation session. A good simulation session can be just one or two minutes long. But as every first responder knows, an enormous amount can happen in one minute.
“In the sim, they’re reacting,” Deakins points out. “It’s during the after-action review that they’re actually learning. It’s not unusual for the after-action debriefing to last 10 times as long as the simulation scenario—that’s a sign you’re doing it right. After action scenario review unlocks the power of the simulation training technology. This is where the trainee or officer really processes what they’ve experienced.”
Getting the Most from After Action Review
How do you get the most out of your after-action review (AAR) process?
First and foremost, every AAR should engage all the students—not just the one or two who were in the simulation. Even more critical: AARs should primarily take the form of questions from the instructor (rather than lecture or talking points).
“This is so important,” Deakins explains. “Asking questions gets the student taking charge of their learning. That doesn’t just result in better retention, it’s also a valuable practice of something we need in the field: responders who take ownership of the situation quickly and confidently, and are better prepared to choose options and deescalate when necessary.”
That said, every debriefing has the potential to get off track. Different trainers with different experiences/backgrounds can inadvertently teach variations on tactics or reinforce habits that are inconsistent with their current policies. All too often, we slip into training the field practice we’re used to, instead of training the policy we’ve adopted.
How do we address this natural—yet undesirable—tendency?
Choosing Tools and Simulation Training Technology to Ensure Consistency
A good assessment tool is a vital partner supporting your simulation training technology. It ensures that every debriefing is consistent, accurate, and detailed across instructors and situations. Deakins suggests a computerized training and assessment tool called VITALS (Virtual Instructor and Trainee Assessment and Learning System). One can program their current policies into VITALS, and it will supply a reliable framework for each training exercise. As that policy evolves, so can VITALS. Having this framework to lean on frees instructors to focus on the training while offering both more nuance and more consistency.
On one level, an application like VITALS is helpful just because it creates an objective record of the training for the instructor and trainee to review together. It tracks decisions the trainee made during simulation, as well as their interactions with all the elements of the scenario (vehicle controls, radio calls, force options, branching decisions, etc.). VITALS can also integrate a complete audio and video recording of the entire scenario.
It’s extremely easy to misremember what you did, and in what order, during a chaotic and stressful situation. Having a complete objective record on hand for consideration after the exercise is complete gives trainees a powerful perspective on how they handled a scenario. Most people who pursue a career as a first responder are what Phil Duczyminski (a fire training officer for the City of Novi, Michigan) calls “tactical/practical learners.” Those sorts of “hands-on” individuals respond extremely well to simulation training technology. Seeing themselves on the screen during AAR is a powerful experience. Having the visual, along with the instructor’s questions, allows them to explore how they were reasoning (in the heat of the moment), and weigh the potential outcomes of their chosen actions against the range of options they had available.