Adventures of a Role Player

I cried out in terror as the enraged gunman wrapped his arm tighter around my chest, pulling me closer against his body. "Don't come any closer!" he yelled. "Back off or I'll shoot! I'll kill her, I swear!" I choked back a sob as he pressed the muzzle of his pistol more firmly against my forehead. We stood in the center of the darkened room, locked in a tense stand-off with the four armed police officers who stood in the doorway with their own weapons drawn.

Suddenly, a gunshot cracked, echoing loudly in the enclosed space. Bright green paint splattered across the plastic face shield of the gunman's helmet, and a shrill whistle blew as he immediately released his grip on me and lowered his gun.

Fortunately, the gunman in this situation was an actor, all of the guns were mock weapons loaded with paint marker pellets, and the "standoff" was part of a simulated police training exercise.

Since June 2007, I have spent over 50 hours working alongside local police officers and paramedics as a volunteer civilian role-player for their tactical and medical training exercises. It is voluntary; I and the others who do this are not paid. The only compensation we receive is lunch on the longer work days, pictures of the exercises, and the sincere thanks and appreciation of those who we are working with.

Since the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, police training protocols have changed dramatically. Standard law enforcement training now includes what is called "Active Shooter Training." Armed with mock weapons and paint marker pellets, one or more officers poses as a hostile gunman. The responding officers, also equipped with training weapons, then run through various scenarios to neutralize the threat and take down the gunman before he or she can cause more harm. Frequently, these exercises are conducted at local schools, and student and faculty volunteers are enlisted to portray panicked hysterical people and injured and/or deceased victims. The atmosphere is designed to be as chaotic and confusing as possible, with people running and screaming, fire alarms blaring, firecrackers simulating gunshots, and anything else that people can come up with to maximize chaos and confusion. The intent is not to confuse the officers or purposely cause them to fail, but rather to help them become familiar with any number of situations that they may face.

Role playing has become one of the most frequently used training tools for law enforcement officers and the military. Over 80 percent of law enforcement agencies use some form of role playing in their training programs. Police recruits in training role-play a variety of scenarios, from a routine traffic stop to a hostage standoff. The "Hogan's Alley" mock town at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia, is equipped with buildings and resources for trainees and role players to participate in scenarios such as bank robberies and terrorist attacks, and practice techniques such as planning and making arrests, conducting searches, and collecting evidence at crime scenes.

Law enforcement and military personnel are not the only ones who incorporate role playing into their training. It is also widely used in the medical field as well. In addition to using medical manikins and rescue dummies to practice techniques like CPR or blood draws, paramedics and doctors often utilize role players in medical simulation exercises. One example is the "Every Fifteen Minutes" drunk-driving awareness program geared towards high school students. The program consists of a mock car crash in which local high school students are recruited to portray the drunk driver and injured victims. Firefighters and paramedics respond as though the crash was real, extracting the injured victims from the car and transporting them to the hospital emergency room for treatment. (FictionPress author note: I participated in this program in May 2009, and wrote about my experience. That is posted here on FP as well.)

In other cases, medical personnel will conduct training simulation exercises in which their "victim" role players have injuries or illnesses that must be correctly identified and treated. Obviously, real medical procedures will not actually be carried out on simulated patients, but the medical personnel are as realistic as is safely possible. In participating in these exercises, I have played everything from a severely injured car accident victim to an unstable psychiatric patient!

Another response situation in which role players are used is in CERT exercises. CERT, which stands for "Community Emergency Response Team", is a nationwide program that was created in California following a major earthquake in 1987, and became part of the national "Citizen Corps" following 9/11. Civilians complete a 21-hour training course in search and rescue, debris removal and victim extrication, small fire suppression, and triage and trauma first aid. The final class session is a simulated disaster in which teams must extinguish a small fire, safely extract a rescue dummy from a pile of rubble, and use their training in search and rescue, triage, and first aid to locate, assess, and treat the role players who are portraying victims with various injuries. In the event of a major disaster such as a terrorist attack or severe storm, CERT teams can temporarily step in to relieve some of the burden on emergency responders. CERT teams have responded to situations ranging from a search for a missing child to the devastating spring 2011 storms in the Midwestern and Southern United States.

What role do civilians play (no pun intended!) in role-playing exercises? Aside from something interesting to put on a resume and discuss with friends, there is also another, more practical reason to utilize volunteer role players in training exercises: Realism. Police, military, and medical personnel witness many gruesome things in their daily work. Simulations and role-playing are very valuable educational tools. It's one thing for a plastic dummy to be wearing a tag that describes their condition as something like, "19-year-old female with gunshot wound to chest", or for police officers to be presented with a paper silhouette target in the shape of someone holding a gun. It is another thing entirely for them to be confronted with a nineteen-year-old female with a gunshot wound (creatively made from stage blood and realistic makeup) or an enraged man holding a gun, and have to figure out how to successfully disarm the crazed gunman or calm the crying, panicked victim and treat her injury.

The best way to prepare for a real-world situation is to imitate those conditions as closely as possible. Role playing and simulation exercises provide opportunities for trainees to practice their skills in controlled environments that have been designed and manipulated to mimic real-world scenarios. It is far better to make mistakes and learn from them in training with simulated conditions than in a real life-and-death scenario. Training mistakes provide a valuable learning experience; real-world mistakes could cost someone their life.

Using role players in training exercises gives civilians a rare opportunity for a glimpse into the world of law enforcement and medical work, and gives police and medical personnel the opportunity to interact with civilians on another level. It also familiarizes the responders with situations that they may face in their work, so that they may hone and perfect their responses and minimize the risk of making a mistake in a real-world scenario.

(As an added bonus, these exercises are typically quite fun for everyone involved! High levels of adrenaline often provide unexpected moments of humor and laughter in the middle of an otherwise tense situation!)

I have countless stories and pictures from my experiences as a civilian role player. Along with the entertaining memories, this work has also given me a greater appreciation for the work that law enforcement and medical personnel do to protect and serve members of society. It is unfortunate that they have to plan and prepare for such difficult situations, but such is the reality of the world we live in.

I look forward to the learning experiences of future exercises!


If you would like to learn more about this (and/or contact me), I have a blog and Facebook page where I post photos, quotes, amusing stories, and "after action reports" with the details of the exercises that I work on. "Adventures in Moulage and Adrenaline" can be found on Facebook, and at www(dot)moulageandadrenaline(dot)blogspot(dot)com. (Replace (dot) with .)