During the service of a search warrant, two officers enter a room while a third officer covers the doorway of an unsearched room. Photo Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN TRAINING
It s 1930 hrs on a Saturday evening, and you re completing a job to locate and clear suspects from a residence. You re positioned outside a plantation house. Intel photos show a standard, one-story building with several adjacent barns. The house has a large brick chimney, several large windows and smaller windows near the base of the house. From the outside, you look through the large windows and see that the living room and kitchen appear unoccupied. Upon entry, the kitchen is to your right and the living room to your left. A room directly ahead and to the left with an open door looks like a bedroom, and another room to your right has a closed door. You don t hear or see any signs of movement in the residence. Now that the door has been breached, you must clear the house quickly. You have 30 seconds to develop a course of action (COA).
If this were you, how would you choose a COA? What information would be important to your decision? Would you base your COA solely on standard operating procedure (SOP), or also on knowledge you learned from your experiences?
Successfully managing situations like this most often requires some combination of SOP and experiential knowledge. But while the need for this combination of knowledge is clear, a good deal of training today for house-clearing teams still focuses primarily on the execution of procedures and tactics. Training exercises are often conducted in an empty room and made more difficult by creating a more challenging physical space (i.e., adding furniture to complicate maneuvering). This training approach does develop the ability to identify potential obstructions and handle an offender. However, it does not capture the types of perceptual skills expert officers have learned through their experiences.
What cues does an officer notice that suggest the person they face is a threat? What does the officer hear or see that indicates a team member needs support? How do specific objects in the physical environment give the officer an indication of an impending threat?
By recognizing critical cues e.g., an offender uses conversation to close the officer s reactionary gap officers can more quickly and appropriately apply tactics to manage situations. To move trainees closer to an expert level of situation awareness and tactical execution, training for house-clearing missions for individuals and teams must include elements of SOPs and intuitive decision-making.
Intuitive Decision Making
SOPs designed to protect officers and the public remain integral to mission success, but they can t anticipate every situation an officer will face during a house-clearing operation. When SOPs don t dictate an adequate course of action, officers must use their experience to assess the situation, recognize what course of action makes sense and evaluate that course of action by imagining how the situation will progress.
When officers recognize a situation as typical and familiar, they understand what types of goals make sense, which cues are important and what to expect. By recognizing a situation as typical, they also recognize an acceptable course of action. This is known as Recognition-Primed Decision Making (RPD).1
Where, then, is this expert blending of RPD and SOP manifested in house-clearing missions? The situation at the plantation that introduced this article offers good examples. This real-life mission was related to us by an expert house-clearing team member with 13 years experience within a Canadian SWAT organization (see A Real-Life Example at right). The cues he picked up on helped him determine his direction of movement once in the house, which rooms to clear first and where to locate suspects.
Does new-officer training prepare cops to assess and handle this type of situation as expertly? Not often, but it can. The training scenarios simply must include critical cues and factors to build officers skills at cue recognition and situation assessment. We can increase the effectiveness of house-clearing training provided to less-experienced officers by isolating and describing the cues in the environment and the decision-making processes used by expert officers during house-clearing missions.
Through research with house-clearing teams, we identified four types of critical cues departments should include in training to bring new officers up the learning curve further and faster on intuitive decision-making skills. These cues include Environmental Assessment, Threat Assessment, Situation Assessment, and Team Assessment cues.2 The Cue Examples table (see above) provides examples of these cue sets and examples of the information expert house-clearing team members attend to.
By uncovering these aspects of expertise among your veterans and translating specific examples into decision-making training, you can help your less-experienced officers begin developing expert-level skills. Bottom line: Novices must practice recognizing cues, developing expectancies and formulating courses of action.
SOPs remain an indispensable part of successful house-clearing operations, but house-clearing training must support trainees in developing expertise in SOP and in using their experience to assess the situation and choose an appropriate course of action. As trainees become more skilled at identifying and understanding the relevance of cues and what goals make sense, they become better able to determine when it s appropriate to maintain SOP and when to deviate from those procedures, exercising SOP with more flexibility when the operation s success depends on it.
1. Klein, G. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1998.
2. Harris-Thompson, D., Wiggins, S.L., & Ho, G. Using Cognitive Task Analysis to Develop Scenario-Based Training for House-Clearing Teams. Fairborn, OH: Klein Associates. 2006.
A Real-Life Example
My last job was at a plantation. I was the first one in. There were big windows we could look in, and we could see there was nobody in the living room or kitchen. By approaching this is where it s important not to have tunnel vision I knew the layout and I knew nobody was in the kitchen to the right or in the living room to my left. The way I entered I had a view of those two rooms. I knew those two rooms were clear, so my vision went straight.
When I entered, a door ahead of me was open. It looked like a bedroom. Most times we catch guys in their bed. I went to the open door first, so I could see the room was empty.
From the pictures we had, I had a feeling there were some rooms downstairs where people were sleeping. There was no second level. We could see the windows near the ground. So, we knew there was a first level and a basement. I suspected it was a living space rather than a basement where they stored equipment because it was a plantation with many barns, meaning they had many farm hands. Usually with land like that you need places for those people to sleep. This was a house for them. There was also a chimney going down into the ground. If you heat a house downstairs, people will likely be down there. So, we went down to the basement, and that s where we found the people we were looking for.
Note the shifts between intuitive decision-making and SOP in this expert s assessment of the situation:
Decision Points Description
Decision 1: How do we approach the house?
Cues- Big windows in front allowed us to see into the house.
Factor- Intel gave us the layout of the house.
Action- We approached from the front and looked through the windows to clear the kitchen and living room from outside, then entered the house and immediately saw an open door and a closed door.
Strategy Type- SOP
Decision 2: Which room do we clear first?
Cues- The door looked like a bedroom door.
Factor- Most times, we catch guys in their bed.
Action- We entered the room with the open door; it was empty.
Strategy Type- SOP
Decision 3: Should we continue searching the ground floor or go to the basement to look for suspects?
Cues- From outside, we saw there was a chimney going down into the ground. If you heat the house downstairs, it will be warm and people will likely be down there. I suspected it was a living space rather than a storage space.
Factor- We knew this was a plantation and it would need farm hands to work it and the farm hands need a place to sleep. This was a house for them.
Action- We went down to the basement, and that s where we found the people we were looking for.
Strategy Type- RPD
Type of Cues Importance to House-Clearing Mission
Expert: Layout is very important. If it s 0400 hrs, they ll probably be in the bedroom. If it s an apartment, it s one floor. If it s residential, they re on the second floor. We have to get there ASAP.
Size and construction of doors;
Spatial relationship/setup of furniture; and
What s the furniture made of? Can officers or the suspect shoot through it?
Expert: The threat cues are important because if [the suspects] aren t complying, they re formulating a plan to do something. A reaction is never faster than an action.
Suspect s body language (e.g., clenched fist, thousand-mile stare, etc.);
Suspect s feet is he in a combative stance? and
The reactionary gap is there enough space for the suspect to attack the officer?
Expert: [Officers] get so focused on one thing that they can t get the big picture. They get tunnel vision, maybe focusing on the individual rather than the team.
Noise (e.g., talking and TV) can help locate the suspect;
The position of the doors (e.g., which way do the hinges open?); and
Is the suspect using a landline or cordless phone? That is, can he walk around while the team talks with him, or must he stay stationary?
Expert: Thinking within the team is a baseline skill. You have to trust the team and compensate where there is a hole or something changes the dynamic of readiness and it changes the team.
A developing situation a team member is unaware of;
Neither the teammate nor the suspect is talking; and
Team members aren t reacting to obvious threat areas (e.g., not covering stairs).
Tips for Trainers
To create high-quality training scenarios and use them effectively:
- Use first-person language to create a sense of urgency and emotional force within the scenario;
- Force trainees to make decisions in the scenario with multiple acceptable courses of action;
- Integrate important cues into the scenario to provide meaningful decision-making context;
- Avoid including so many cues in the scenario that they overwhelm the trainees;
- Debrief the scenario by trying to identify the information trainees used to make decisions. Uncovering the thinking behind the answer can prove more valuable than evaluating the answer; and
- In the end, you want trainees to experience the same cognitive challenges as someone would in the real world (without the threat to life and property) and learn what to focus on to improve their performance.
Danyele Harris-Thompson is a senior scientist at Klein Associates Division of Applied Research Associates. She conducts research in individual and team performance, organization development and simulation-based training. Harris-Thompson has conducted research and development efforts to support the identification of training requirements, the design and delivery of scenario-based training, and the restructuring of team and organizational work processes. She has worked with the U.S. military, SWAT teams and commercial industry to support training and performance improvement.
Sterling L. Wiggins is a principal scientist at the Klein Associates Division of Applied Research Associates. Wiggins conducts research in cognitive systems engineering and training for individuals and teams in dynamic task environments. Wiggins research activities include developing applications for system design, decision support and user interface development using a variety of cognitive task analysis methods. He has worked with U.S. Army Rangers building clearing teams and Canadian SWAT teams to identify training requirements and design scenario-based training.