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The Physiology of Situational Awareness Training

The Physiology of Situational Awareness Training


As a practical matter, use-of-force training and situational awareness training must go hand in hand. We regularly ask officers to quickly assess a chaotic situation and then apply only the “amount of effort required … to compel compliance by an unwilling subject” (according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police). That’s not just a tall order: it’s a physiological impossibility for the average human.

During an emergency, the sympathetic nervous system (or “SNS,” which is responsible for “fight-or-flight” survival) is activated. At the same time, the parasympathetic nervous system (or “PNS,” the brain’s regulator) is suppressed.

The “fight-or-flight” condition has many advantages: increased strength, decreased perception of pain, decreased bleeding from superficial wounds, and so on. But these come at a cost in the form of cognitive deficits, motor deficits, and perceptual distortions. All of those deficits make it exceedingly difficult to maintain situational awareness and properly gauge and moderate the use of force.


The Physiology of Fight-or-Flight

In order to have the oxygen available to supercharge muscles, the body has to route that supply away from other areas. For example, in an emergency, the SNS reduces blood flow to portions of the brain responsible for reasoning, memory management, and learning recall. Recalling a complex protocol is nearly impossible once this occurs. Similarly, the perceived passage of time will be warped (both slowing and accelerating) and hearing altered.

The activated SNS also releases hormones that restrict blood flow to the eyes and muscles around the eyes. This forces the eye lens to flatten, reducing depth perception. In this state, you can focus on the source of the threat in extremely sharp detail but physically cannot see things that are nearer, farther, or in your periphery. That means tunnel vision and a temporary inability to focus the eye on nearby objects. These together lead to “forced binocular vision”: the eyes lock onto a threat, forcing the rest of the body to square-up facing that perceived threat (which degrades shooting precision).

All told, once the SNS is activated during an emergency, you are likely to experience a 70% reduction in the ability to see. That alone results in a 440% increase in reaction time (in a situation where seconds count).

This isn’t an issue of being a rookie or having the jitters or “not having the stomach for the work.” Studies have confirmed that, once the SNS is triggered, even seasoned, well-trained officers will experience these distortions and deficits. All the range time or street time in the world won’t “toughen you up” enough to gut your way through. Remaining situationally aware under these conditions requires a different set of skills.


Data-informed Situational Awareness Training

Given the physiological realities of fight-or-flight, data-informed situational awareness training must “program” officers with a set of tools that help them:

  • Delay the triggering of the SNS
  • Recognize when their SNS has been “activated”
  • Re-engage the PNS (which is the calming/regulating element of the nervous system)

According to Chuck Deakins—a retired lieutenant commander with decades of experience using simulation training—the best way to accomplish this is with an integrated, immersive simulation training solution like DrivingForce.

“Radio transmissions of those on the scene, the siren, traffic, road condition, just the idea of citizens or a fellow officer in jeopardy—these all get the heart racing,” and thus increase the likelihood of the SNS flipping into fight-or-flight mode. “Officers who are already ‘escalated’ from the response to a call are going to have a much more difficult time ‘de-escalating a situation when they arrive. … That’s the power of the simulator: you’re learning to de-escalate yourself, you’re practicing your breathing, you’re practicing your task management. You’re in the situation, addressing it according to policy, while also controlling your breathing, fighting your tunnel vision, breaking up the situation, using these skills that keep you from getting over-escalated. In short, it’s situational awareness training that helps you see both the external situation you’ve come to address, and the internal one occurring within your body due to stress.”