"A new strategy for reducing injuries"
Risk Management and Training Safety Officers
By: Robert Boe and Randy Means
Law enforcement leaders breathe a sigh of relief after certain training sessions and say, “I am glad we got through that without injuries.” City and county risk managers express the same thought. There is good reason to be concerned. Good training can improve officer safety, but it can also get people hurt. As training has become more realistic, hands-on and physical, training-related injuries have increased.
For example, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) statistics show that training injuries rose from 10 percent to 20 percent of its overall police workers’ compensation cost in the last four years.
In addition to the injury, pain, medical treatments, recovery, and fear of re-injury for the officer, a department also deals with the rest of the iceberg of workers’ comp injuries, including shifts that need to be covered, light duty assignments, administrative requirements, and sometimes higher insurance premiums. A new strategy of using “Training Safety Officers” aims to reverse these trends.
The Minnesota Experience
In an important strategic initiative, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust began a Training Safety Officer (TSO) program, similar to that used by parts of the military, which involves the assignment of a knowledgeable person to observe and oversee training activities in order to stop actions that are unsafe or dangerous. Obviously, training instructors have always had this job but they are often preoccupied with their specific training involvement(s) and may sometimes lose sight of certain aspects of the larger training picture.
The TSO serves as additional eyes and ears and stays focused on specific safety issues. The program emphasizes an identified set of “control factors” that exist in training, and asks the training instructor and the TSO to work in partnership to maximize safety in terms of both human factors and the unique training environment more broadly.
Early in the development of the program, LMCIT staff met with the Association of Training Officers of Minnesota (ATOM) to better understand what was occurring in training and why. They also met with Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) training division staff, who shared what they had learned as they changed the delivery of their use-of-force tactical training and experienced reduced injuries. One of their key lessons learned was the need to focus on “off-script behavior,” which they defined as any behavior occurring that was not in the lesson plan.
TSO Test Sites
Those meetings led to several police departments volunteering to serve as test sites to experiment with the TSO concept. The test site departments quickly transformed the concept into proactive methods designed to get ahead of potential problems. The TSOs from the test departments focused on the relationship between the instructor and TSO and their responsibility of overseeing the safety of the training session. They increased their focus by adding risk assessment, a safety plan, a safety briefing, site inspections, and a safety critique.
TSOs tried to visualize what the off-script behavior might look like and predetermined what they should watch for. The involved trainings sessions included use of force (defensive tactics, firearms qualifications, “less-lethal” weapons training) and an active shooter training at a high school involving citizens as role players.
Beginning with the first test site at Cannon Falls High School, it became apparent that instructors concentrated on individuals as they closely watched and coached officers in the skills need to complete the training. It was not uncommon for instructors to have their backs to much of the training that was occurring, especially if one officer was having difficulty or needed additional instruction. Cannon Falls Police Chief Jeff McCormick noted, “Early on in my career, I was a firearms instructor. I found out how quickly I could lose sight of the whole picture on the shooting range.”
The Looping Tactic
The instructors took advantage of the TSOs and started a quick check-in that came to be known as “looping.” As the instructor began to rely on the TSO to keep track of the entire session, it was common to hear the instructor ask, “Am I missing anything?”
The TSOs did not have much to report during the first couple of check-ins other than an occasional reminder about safety equipment or to point out that a mat needed to be repositioned. However, as a training session progressed, TSOs brought forward valuable information that the instructor had missed. Typical TSO observations: They are getting tired; they are losing concentration; they need a break.
Sometimes they had very specific information about individuals such as the officer who was pointing his gun a dangerous direction during magazine changes, or that two officers were becoming overly aggressive during a defensive tactics class. Here, a TSO told the instructor it was time for a break, and it was time to change training partners because, he said, “I could see where things were going.”
That phrase has become the informal motto of the TSO program as the TSOs repeatedly worked with the instructor to catch minor problems early and keep the training on track by following the lesson plan. The TSOs also identified the “off-script” actions to watch for, and they pointed out that these actions were more likely to occur toward the end of training.
The active-shooter training session at Cannon Falls High School was complicated and fast-paced. The TSOs had identified the safety of the volunteer citizen role-players as their priority. A TSO detected that the role-players were becoming bored as they acted out the same scene for different groups of officers, and he saw that they were starting to go off-script. His friendly reminders and constant oversight made a night of very dynamic, realistic training go safely. He even covered a Smart Board to protect it from an errant paint ball round. Another aspect of risk management: protection of equipment!
Results and Lessons Learned
The connection and communication between the TSO and the instructor makes the program work. That connection starts during the planning of the training and continues through the training session as they check in with each other and maintain a high level of situational awareness as to what is occurring. This constant looping was found beneficial at every site.
The safety plan, pre-site inspection, and safety briefing became the foundation for the program. It helped the instructor and the TSO organize the training from a risk management standpoint. Woodbury Police Commander Kris Mienert observed, “It is more work up front, but it is important.” Cannon Falls’ McCormick echoed those thoughts. “We were starting to do some of this already, but the TSO program formalized it and gave it structure.”
The TSO needs to be highly visible during the training session. The test site evaluation revealed that the TSO needed to wear a reflective vest both to stand out from the other training participants and to serve as a visual reminder that the session was being observed. LMCIT staff believe the highly visible TSO had a bit of a “Hawthorne Effect” on the trainees. They were very aware they were being watched, and that helped keep them on script.
The TSO program works and greatly reduces law-enforcement training injuries. It also works for emergency medical, fire and emergency management training. Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate stated, “The TSO program has gone well. It is here to stay, as the officers have bought into it. I am pleased with the gains we’ve made.” “It is a fabulous program,” said Police Chief McCormick of Cannon Falls.
The IACP Report on “Reducing Officer Injuries”
The Minnesota TSO program findings are consistent with the recently released IACP study on “Reducing Officer Injuries.” The report supports the adoption of “safety lectures” prior to training activities that could result in officer injury and measured the reduction in severity and number of training injuries when a safety lecture was used.
The report also calls for an increased amount of training in the areas of use of force and in “effecting an arrest” as these areas of training may actually decrease OSHA reportable officer injuries. It further stated, “Data findings from the IACP study show a relationship between use-of-force training and overall decreased severity of injury, suggesting that proper, proactive preparation for such inherently dangerous encounters is imperative.”
Scenario-based training is here to stay because it works. But as realism and stress are added to training environments, risk of injury (even death) increases. A TSO program is not about watering down effective law enforcement training. It is about using all of the controls reasonably available in a training environment to deliver that training safely. It costs only some extra time and effort—clearly a bargain when compared to the full cost of training injuries.
Robert Boe is the Public Safety Projector Coordinator for the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. He served as a Prior Lake (MN) police officer and Scott County (MN) Sheriff’s Deputy for 29 years. He may be reached at RBoe@lmc.org.
Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.