This instructor wears RedMan’s WDS suit.PHOTO COURTESY REDMAN
A role player wears Blauer’s High Gear suit.PHOTO COURTESY BLAUER
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Last month, I began my column discussing a 5 Day Reality Based Training Instructor school in north Florida. I described a scenario that included a resistant motorist and a request from training staff for a defensive-tactics (DT) suit for the scenario. No suits were available, so the group was cautioned that the exercise controller must ensure no hard physical contact occurs.
If you read the column, you’ll recall the instructor utilized a technique referred to as a tactical timeout, or what I often call “hitting the pause button.” This technique permits the instructor to administratively move the role player into various positions without physical interaction with the student, or to get into the student’s mind to ascertain what they are going to do next, thus potentially avoiding a dangerous confrontation with an unprotected role player. It was successful in the first iteration, and the role player was taken into “custody” without any physical injury. On the second iteration, however, the role player was not so fortunate.
The exercise controller had been taught that proximity to the student remains paramount during high-level scenarios (which feature dynamic activity and a story line) so that student actions can be closely observed. He maintained that proximity throughout the scenario. The role player, who was playing the role of a felony-warrant suspect refusing to exit his vehicle, was once again removed from the vehicle without physical harm via a tactical timeout. He was ordered to the ground, and he complied. When ordered to place his hands behind his back, however, he did not comply. The student officer moved closer to him. His body language was loud and clear: “I’m taking you into custody—physically.” The exercise controller was poised and ready to intervene if necessary. “I said, ‘put your hands behind your back!’” shouted the student officer. No compliance.
What happened next was, in many ways, predictable. The student officer made an aggressive move to physically control the suspect and used a distraction strike—a punch to the “suspect’s” floating ribs. It sounded much like Mark McGwire hitting a home run—crack!
The whistle was blown and physical intervention by the exercise controller was swift, but the damage was done. The role player ended up with a couple of cracked ribs, and the training came to a grinding halt.
The most dangerous time during any scenario-based training is the moment when the titans clash. Therefore, you must have exact planning, role-player training and scripting, and, if the scenario will definitely feature physical contact, proper protective gear. Last month I also discussed the stunt-double approach to ensure you can swap in a properly padded role player to absorb the hard hits. This month, I will discuss some of the suits available for protection against those hits, and what I perceive to be the strengths and limitations of the various suits.
Flexibility vs. Protection
First, let me say I don’t believe any one suit will do it all for you. Due to the fluid nature of the various aspects of reality-based training (RBT), you will always have to make some sort of tradeoff when using protective gear. That’s why agencies need an RBT program—programs are funded on an annual basis, whereas projects get a single infusion of cash and that’s that. If you have a program in place, you can budget each year to acquire more gear annually. Start with basic RBT protective equipment (face, throat, gloves, groin, etc.) for all participants. The following years, budget for a couple of role-player protective suits for heavier-contact DT scenarios.
There are really two types of suits out there. One type will provide excellent flexibility and a good (if somewhat limited) degree of protection, and the other will provide excellent protection and a good (if somewhat limited) degree of flexibility. All of the suits will feature areas of vulnerability to projectiles, baton or TASER strikes, and you must take these factors into consideration.
In my experience, Blauer Tactical Systems offers the suit that provides the greatest flexibility, the High Gear suit. Developed by longtime DT trainer Tony Blauer, this equipment has its roots in the hockey world. Blauer partnered with an equipment manufacturer to maximize the benefits of protective gear that had proven itself in the crucible of the hockey arena. Because hockey players need ultimate flexibility, it seemed a natural starting point for the High Gear platform. As the equipment evolved, Blauer was quick to respond to the needs of the training community, and his suit is now widely used in military and law enforcement circles and by professionals in the mixed martial-arts community.
The High Gear suit was engineered to allow the wearer to perform any DT or combative tactic, as well as to permit the role player to replicate any realistic attack. However, as I stated, all suits have some type of limitation. With the High Gear suit, combatants can tear the attachment straps from the suit. During a grappling situation, combatants will use anything easily accessible as a handle, and the attachment straps often fit that bill. This suit was, however, designed to be worn underneath clothing. If used as directed, the attachment straps are therefore inaccessible as handles, solving this problem. Wearing clothing over the top of the suit also eliminates most of the gaps in the protective covering that might otherwise permit any type of training projectile to pass through. This is important because non-lethal training ammunition projectiles can seem like intelligent, flesh-seeking missiles—if there’s a hole, they’ll find it!
The suit also does not provide the heavier degree of protective padding that some of the other suits do. This was actually a deliberate design consideration of Blauer’s because it was designed not just for role players, but for student-officers as well. Blauer didn’t want the students to, as he terms it, use the suit as a weapon by performing unrealistic actions that would be physically dangerous without the suit. Much as I encourage a pain-penalty for tactical error through the use of marking projectiles, Blauer believed that to truly stress-inoculate a student, DT training must include the risk of pain in order to elicit a psychological fear response. While this is useful for students, my personal opinion is that the pucker factor is not a useful response with role players, so for hard contact, bulkier gear offers them advantages.
The Mobile Heavy Bag
To that end, some of the other suits manufactured by RedMan (Macho Products) and FIST function a bit more like a mobile heavy bag. While there are several versions of each of these suits by these manufacturers, ultimately they are larger and bulkier than the High Gear. This provides a greater degree of protection from harder strikes, but targeting is a bigger consideration in some cases, and flexibility can be reduced. Another suit produced by a company called Hitman was popular a number of years ago, but it seems to have fallen off the radar. In my mind, Hitman falls into the same category as RedMan and FIST, and incorporated memory foam and memory gel protective cells. I haven’t seen or heard of it for a while now, though.
In the FIST suit, student-officers can use real batons with full power, but only on the padded areas! You must avoid strikes to unprotected areas on the role player. Visors on the headgear of the FIST suit are not designed for projectile-based training, so use extreme caution with projectiles. Use other types of headgear in combination with the FIST suit if you will employ projectiles.
I really like the ease of putting on the FIST gear. Most of the pieces are connected to one another, so you can slip into the suit and have a partner fasten the closures. This makes swapping out role players relatively simple, and taking the suit off during breaks in the action is accomplished with a minimum of effort. The materials from which the suit is manufactured also make the suit easy to clean from any of the marking compounds currently available with the various non-lethal training munitions.
RedMan suits from Macho Products have been around for many years. Macho made its entry into the DT community by pioneering protective products for the martial-arts community. The RedMan division was formed to specifically address law enforcement and its protective-product needs for DT training, and veteran law enforcement trainer Gary Klugiewicz has been instrumental in much of the evolution of these products.
The RedMan products have evolved as RBT has evolved, especially with most agencies incorporating projectile-based training. The standard products available from Macho utilize a type of polymer-covered foam not designed to withstand the impact of projectiles. There were also a number of holes in the conventional training suits that were designed to permit venting and sweat evaporation, but left the wearer vulnerable to projectile strikes. In response to the growing requirement for a suit that could be used with projectiles, Macho introduced the WDS suit. This suit features a vast array of pieces, and training staff can use as many or as few pieces of gear as they feel necessary for each scenario they run. This is both a strength and a limitation of this suit—lots of pieces can equal training-scenario flexibility, but it can also make for a tedious and lengthy gear-up/gear-down process if you use the whole suit.
The company’s latest headgear seems a bit cumbersome and I’m not a big fan of it, although much like the dreaded bubble-head helmet that SIMUNITION makes (the bubblehead is banned from use in my training, by the way), it’s impervious to projectiles (and ventilation, vision, etc.). My recommendation here, again, is to mix and match a different helmet. For hard DT- strike possibilities, I think the High Gear headgear in conjunction with its projectile-friendly shroud is optimal. If you don’t anticipate hard hits, conventional projectile-based training headgear works best.
The WDS suit has a mesh impregnated into the surface of the suit designed to withstand the projectile strikes. It has also eliminated the venting that the conventional suit uses. The WDS suit has much greater coverage than the conventional RedMan suit, affording greater protection against strikes during dynamic scenarios. The tradeoff, however, is flexibility.
The importance of flexibility in a suit is often recognized too late, especially during any custodial phase of a simulation. Often, the inflexibility imposed by a suit is read by the student as suspect resistance. This will often lead to over-commitment by a torqued-up student, and can lead to physical harm of the role player as their arms or legs are forced into positions normally unattainable. This is where breaks and dislocations occur, and real fights often happen when a role player, attempting to protect himself from physical harm, begins to actually fight the student instead of demonstrating mock resistance. The exercise controller must remain in close proximity to the student officer and remain sensitive to the goings-on in the scenario to stop a scenario in the event of such dangers.
All in all, I believe the FIST and RedMan products (and Hitman, if you have them) are very useful if you use the stunt-double approach to training, or in target focus training drills where students need a mobile heavy bag with which they can interact. For more dynamic simulations, I prefer the High Gear suit from Blauer.
No Magic Suit
Tactical simulations are complex training situations, and there will never be any single solution when it comes to protective equipment. While all forms of RBT require high levels of organization and a carefully crafted training methodology, it’s even more important during any training where physical interaction will occur. The rewards of this type of stress inoculation can be great, but the pitfalls are many. When it comes to people hitting other people in the emotionally charged arena of military and law enforcement training, proper protective gear—and, more importantly, the right person wearing the gear—remains essential for safe and effective training. Much as there is no magic bullet for comprehensive firearms training, there is no magic suit for DT training.
Write your scenarios so that you know exactly what it is you’re testing, teach the skills first through low-level drilling, use properly scripted and well-trained role players, and pay attention to your students during the simulation while keeping them within arm’s reach in order to physically intervene if necessary. Things happen fast in scenario training, and while some injuries will occur, it’s possible through training, scenario structure and proper gear selection to make them avoidable and/or manageable.
Until next time, train hard and train safe.