What Makes Training Realistic?

“Realistic” is a common word that often makes its way into the description of many security training courses. The presumption here is that the course in question will teach you about real-life problems and solutions, and will include exercises that mirror the reality of field operations.

Surveillance Detection, being a relatively new field in the private sector, often suffers from two types of false realism in its training.

The first problem is that many people have allowed themselves to be convinced that when it comes to training, realism means that it has to be harsh, fast-paced and action-packed. I’m not denying that there are environments and situations that do tend to be like that, but this is far from the case for most environments and situations, and is therefore not an objective representation of most people’s reality. ‘Hard in training, easy in battle’ is fair enough, but that’s just another way of admitting that the “realism” in this training is not exactly, or necessarily, the reality in the field.

If SD course scenarios include elaborate situations where the principal goes in and out of offices, cafes, stores and hotels; while SD operators try to detect hostile surveillance operatives all around, ask yourself if this is close to any type of reality you’ve ever encountered in the environments you operate in. I know for a fact that there are principals and protective details for whom this is indeed realistic, but I know way more principals and protective details for whom it isn’t, and way, way more facility and event security professionals who aren’t even tasked with executive protection in the first place.

It’s not a question of right or wrong, theoretically realistic or theoretically unrealistic; but of relevance to your own specific operations. Many courses can equip you with an invigorating sense of fast-paced, high-level tactical ability, but then leave you on your own to figure out how to deal with the boring and mundane pace of many real-world operations.

How do you handle the bland and annoying discomfort of having less than perfect information for hours on end? How do you remain vigilant, and balance hyper awareness with soul-devouring boredom? These are not trivial questions, and they represent a reality that is relevant to many security and SD professionals. But they’re unfortunately very rarely covered in the type of high-paced courses that visiting instructors provide in order to keep their audiences captivated.

I’m not faulting visiting instructors for trying to make SD training more interesting and fun. And I’m not faulting anyone for designing exercises where trainees get to detect multiple hostile surveillants in multiple environments, even though it’s quite rare to do so in real life. I’m saying that a course which claims to be realistic, but that doesn’t also prepare you for dealing with what you’re actually going to encounter 99.9% of the time, isn’t exactly realistic. 

Visiting instructors will often enamor you with exotic stories about exotic cases in exotic places. It’s part of the allure, and I don’t fault them for it (everyone has to make a living, after all). But when they try to sell their training as “realistic”, even though they’ve not spent the requisite years working in the relevant environment to know what is or isn’t realistic for that environment, you should take what they’re selling with a grain of salt.

Many people might remember how executive protection courses used to have this problem. They used to be thrill-rides of defensive driving, tactical shooting, unarmed combatives and formation team movements through crowds. It took many years for people to understand that actual work almost never looks like that, that things like soft-skills and customer service are much more commonly applied and that EP training should reflect that. This adaptation has, to a large degree, already taken place in the EP training scene. It’s time for SD training to catch up and also adapt itself to the realities of the field.

The second false-realism problem is the lack of specialization in SD training. You can sometimes spot this when you read the description of a course, and see that it’s advertised as being designed, or appropriate for law enforcement officers, EP operators, military personnel, government agents and high-end security professionals (usually in the “Who should attend” section).

Now, I understand the need that trainers have for filling up courses (again, everyone needs to make a living). But lumping up law enforcement, EP, military, government and security in such a way, and selling a program that supposedly covers everyone’s diverse needs in a limited amount of time, is ridiculous. It would be great if everyone’s needs could be met in such a short amount of time, but sadly, real-life simply doesn’t work that way.

Every security or protective entity deals with its own subjective circumstances (client, environment, threats, risks, etc.). You can always claim something is realistic if it represents something that happened once (or is happening somewhere in the world). But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be relevant or realistic for you.

There’s nothing unrealistic about wilderness combat training, for example. Quite a few people are at this very moment putting such training to practical use. But the question you have to ask yourself is whether their unique set of circumstances is the same as your unique set of circumstances. We all want training to be realistic, but it’s time to look beyond the idea of potential reality, and start addressing actual relevance.

In order to sort out what’s more relevant to your needs, start by asking yourself what type of client, organization or venue you’re looking to protect. It’s important to make some initial distinctions if you want to understand, detect and mitigate threats that are relevant to your own situation.

Next, you’ll need to figure out which security concerns you’re looking to mitigate. This is where you might want some help from a security consultant who’s familiar with your environment. Once you’ve figured out what you need, you’ll be better positioned to look for training courses that will fit those needs.

The actual, relevant need is what determines the correct training you should take, not the other way around. Many people get this backwards – finding what training they think looks good, and then struggling to fit their security operations to the fun, action-packed training they received.

Properties (campuses, facilities, estates) are quite different from principals (individual people, possibly with family members). The assets in question are different, as are the risk profiles and their mitigation strategies. Most people wouldn’t necessarily want to lump campus security and executive protection into one security training course. Well, in that case, why lump them into the same training course when it comes to surveillance detection, and sell it as a course that’s also appropriate for law enforcement and government agents? 

Let me come clean about something here.
I’m not trying to set myself up as an exemplar, and would be rightly knocked down if I did.
In my fourteen years of high-level protection, covert field-intelligence, terrorist activity prevention, and surveillance detection instruction in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve made pretty much all of the above-mentioned mistakes. And I myself have gone through extremely thrilling trainings, and then spent many hard, long years grinding it out in the field, figuring out what is and isn’t relevant and realistic. 

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that we all have to be perfect all the time. All trainers, trainees and field operators stumble, fall, get up and keep going. The point is that we have to learn from mistakes and keep improving and developing ourselves and our industry.

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