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Designing Quality Tactical Training

General Douglas MacArthur said, “In no other profession are the penalties for employing untrained personnel so appalling or so irrevocable as in the military.” The same can be said for the profession of law enforcement. For police tactical teams, planning and conducting quality tactical training can be challenging. The training world is significantly more complex than it was a few years ago. New technologies and new threats have given birth to techniques in training and to new training requirements.

It is a necessity that department SWAT teams are not only fully trained and capable in their respective missions, but that the training product is documented and evaluated. This article highlights the importance of planning quality training, discusses some of the principles of training and the need for the development of mission-essential tasks in order provide training focus and maximize training resources and time.

Overlooked Principles of Training

An age old training maxim states that units should train as they would fight, for those who sweat the most in peace bleed the least in war. This maxim has been proven time and time again by those in the profession of arms. Unfortunately, all too often police tactical teams do not plan training to mimic the operational conditions they would be confronted with during actual missions.

This lack of planning is often contributed to a lack of time to plan training, a lack of resources, and most important, a lack of training focus. Teams just don’t know what tasks they should train or to what level of proficiency. It is important to build in an aspect of the “train as you would fight” mentality into tactical team training. For example, if a bulk of a team’s missions entail serving high-risk search warrants, and if those search warrants are typically executed at night, then it would seem logical that training for those types of missions would be conducted at night as well.

The point is to train in the environment you will most likely conduct your missions by integrating realistic conditions into the training environment that mimic expected real life conditions, whether it be darkness, imperfect intelligence, loss of communications, causality evacuation, or audible alarms.

When planning training, it is important to incorporate both individual and collective tasks into the overall training plan. Individual tasks, such as weapons qualification are relatively easy to plan for and evaluate. But what about other individual tasks, such as basic weapon handling skills, the deployment of noise flash diversionary devices or mechanical or ballistic breaching skills.

Each of these tasks is essentially an individual skill. However, the performance of these tasks also affects the collective success (or failure) of the team. Therefore, it is important to train on both individual and collective tasks in order to ensure the team’s overall success during operations.

“Failing forward” is a concept that really hasn’t received a lot of attention from police tactical teams. The concept essentially states that failing is OK, as long as it is done in a safe environment where the consequences aren’t catastrophic and the same mistakes are not repeated. For example, imagine a team that fails to conduct a secondary search of a residence and, as a result, fails to discover an armed suspect hiding under a bed.

In a training environment, this issue can be debriefed and discussed, with the expectation that the team has learned from it and will not repeat the same (or a similar) mistake. The result of this same misfortune could be catastrophic during an operational mission. The training environment is the time to embrace mistakes, learn from them, and design future training to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated.

Mission Essential, Mission Critical

Commanders are the training managers and are ultimately responsible for the training and readiness of the team. They should, therefore, be personally vested in the training management process. Mission focus is a concept to derive training requirements from operational missions and leads to the development of mission-essential tasks. Mission-focus training enables the commander to plan and execute training that enables operational mission success. Mission-essential tasks are a focused list of collective tasks the team must be proficient at in order to accomplish an appropriate portion of its operational mission. Many of these tasks also include sub tasks. The development of mission-essential and critical-tasks is the catalyst for developing and planning focused training. The mission development process consists of six inputs.

Directed missions are the most fundamental inputs. Teams derive their directed missions from a variety of sources, but whatever the missions, it’s fundamental that teams train to those missions. Examples might include the directed missions of hostage rescue, high-risk warrant service, and dignitary protection missions. These types of directed missions can also be thought of as missions the team routinely completes.

Team capabilities generate effects, and it is important to understand the capabilities and limitations of the team. Operational capabilities are the unique contribution that each individual brings to the team and also the collective contribution of team members, which ensures mission success. Examples of a capability might include organizational equipment, budget, training ammunition allocation, team member experience and tenure, and past formal training.

Operational environment involves several different dimensions. Operational environment considerations might include typical threats encountered during operational missions, the geography of an area, the availability of the team to generate intelligence, other teams or task forces that might participate in operations, and, of course, the political considerations unique to the community.

External guidance serves as additional resources from which to draw mission-essential and mission-critical training tasks. Examples might include department policies, such as use-of-force policies, guidance from the chief of police or city counsel personnel, or guidance from the district attorney’s office.

It is also important to establish both collective and individual performance standards for measuring and evaluating the accomplishment of mission-essential tasks. A standard is the minimal acceptable performance proficiency required to achieve a task or to set a condition. These performance measures are provided for ease of essential task development but are not intended to be restrictive. The unique characteristics of each task may require a unique performance measure.

Performance measures should be designed so as to achievable, based on the particular scenario. The acronym SMART, commonly used to design performance objectives, is a useful tool to use when establishing a framework for designing performance goals. The “S” in the acronym ensures the performance goals are specific to the task or condition at hand. The “M” ensures the goals are measurable, the “A” ensures the goals are achievable, and “R” ensures the goals are relevant to the specific task and the “T” establishes a timeframe in which the goal should be accomplished.

For example, if a collective mission-essential task for a team was to conduct a ballistic breach of a door, the performance measure for this task might look like this: During conditions of limited visibility and using a shotgun breaching device, the team will conduct a ballistic breach of a (hollow core, reinforced, etc.) door in order to gain entry into dwelling / premise within (set time standard).

When evaluating this task, the evaluator should evaluate based on the proscribed performance measures. Note that this performance measure did not specify which portion of the door needed to be targeted in order to defeat the door, such as the hinge-side or the locking mechanism, or which type of breaching round to use. A performance measure could be written with such specificity.

As with this example, the task of conducting a ballistic breach had an associated performance measure. In the context of learning though, collective and individual learning takes place through experience and exposure in conducting this task.

Mission-essential and critical task development reduces the number of tasks the team must train and focuses the teams training efforts to the most important collective tasks needed to accomplish operational missions. It’s important to note that mission-essential tasks and critical tasks are not prioritized; however, all tasks may not require equal training time either. Admittedly, the process can be time consuming. But once completed, the mission-essential and critical tasks serve as a basis on which to focus training.

Training Management

The training management process is cyclical and encompasses three domains: planning, execution, and evaluation and assessment. The planning phase encompasses the development of mission-essential tasks and the development of training objectives and training calendars. Time horizon planning should include the development of three planning horizons: long-range, short-range, and near-term training plans. Long-range training plans should focus about one year into the future. Short-range training plans should focus 6 to 12 months into the future. And near-term training plans should focus on a 4-month planning horizon.

The long-range training plan is based on the commander’s training guidance and it is the first step in transitioning from the commander’s training guidance to selecting mission-essential tasks for training focus. It prioritizes significant events for additional training focus.

The short range training plans refine the long range training plan by adding additional emphasis or by providing greater detail to the training plan and by completing a risk assessment for each training event. And near-term planning includes the scheduling and execution of the training, provides additional guidance to the trainers, and produces detailed training schedules and risk assessments.

After-Action Reviews

All good training, regardless of the specific tasks, must be executed in accordance with acceptable common training standards. These include well-prepared instructors, sufficient resources and equipment, practice, and evaluation standards. Evaluations and after action reviews (AARs) come in many forms, from personal observations to external evaluations, to inspections of equipment and assessment of personal fitness levels.

Regardless of the type of evaluation used, it is important that an evaluation is conducted. A word of caution. Evaluations shouldn’t always be considered a pass / fail test. Evaluations simply tell the team and the leadership whether or not the team has achieved a desired standard. More importantly, evaluations help the leadership decide where to focus their efforts.

After action reviews can be conducted in a variety of ways and with a variety of participants, ranging from the entire team to just the team leadership. However, it should be a structured process and should be designed and facilitated in a way which allows the participants to discover for themselves what happened. It isn’t uncommon for a participant to have one of those, “ah ha” moments during, or shortly after the AAR. Those “ah ha” moments are a critical component of self-reflective discovery and an important part of internalizing concepts and information.

The AAR process is designed to be constructive and should include the following. What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Discussion of both good points and points for correction, remembering the failing forward concept. How will what happened, such as the execution of tasks or the decisions that were been made, be done differently (or similarly) next time. Document the AAR.
Using our previous example of a mission-essential task of “conduct a ballistic breach,” the AAR process might have revealed the team’s choice to attack the locking mechanism as opposed the hinge-side of the door, or perhaps the breacher improperly targeted the hinges, and suppose the team was not able to successfully breach the door (both a collective task and an individual tasks).

The AAR dialogue may have revealed the thought process as to why the decision was made to attack the lock rather than the hinges, or why the breacher was unable to successfully locate and defeat the hinges. Though the AAR process, and ultimately through the training management process, future training can be designed to address these issues.

There is no doubt that developing effective training programs for tactical teams requires an enhanced level of commitment, energy, and time. In order to maximize the use of valuable training time, and to enhance the effectiveness of training, it is also equally important that tactical teams have “training focus”. By developing a training focus and by developing mission-essential tasks teams can maximize their training focus and maximize training time, leading to a greater proficiency in mission accomplishment.

Jeff Puttkammer is a detective and a SWAT team member with the Boulder Police Department in Boulder, CO. He has served on the SWAT team for more than eight years and serves as one of the principle trainers for the team. He holds a master’s degree in education from Colorado State University. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2009

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