Role playing: Preparing firefighters for the difficult encounter

Linda Willing

Dealing with difficult people just goes with the territory in emergency response. Events that precipitate a 911 call often do not bring out the best in people. Every firefighter has had to deal with the obnoxious drunk at closing time, the angry person with mental health issues, or the entitled person who demands to know: why did this happen to me?

All emergency responders have slightly different ways of dealing with such people. Some firefighters get a bit rattled, others may fall back on an authoritarian presence. Some emergency responders get angry and may even respond in a way that is not professionally appropriate.

And then there are those emergency responders who just seem to naturally rise above the demanding or abusive person. They maintain control of themselves and the incident, often under very difficult conditions.

The extreme use of this latter approach was recently seen in a video of a Philadelphia police officer who was called to deal with a disruptive woman outside a comedy club. To say that this woman was abusive to the officer is an understatement. Just watching the video made my blood pressure rise as her verbal abuse continued.

It must have been very difficult not to react to this woman’s rant in the moment. Yet this officer never lost his cool. He ended up arresting the woman after she attempted to spit on someone, but throughout the entire encounter, the officer remained composed, professional and completely in control.

Training firefighters on techniques to deescalate confrontations

Possibly this police officer is a Zen master, and never reacts to negative stimulus in the form of mistreatment by the public. But more likely, he was trained in specific techniques that allowed him to not react negatively to the woman’s inappropriate behavior.

Law enforcement officers usually receive training for handling such encounters, but many firefighters are left to their instincts in such conditions. This lack of training and preparation can lead to escalation of incidents that could otherwise be avoided.

As a trainer, I am well aware that many firefighters hate role play exercises. With different types of incidents, other forms of training might work just as well, but not with this kind of incident management.

Role play is critical in training firefighters to handle difficult people because it is important that those being trained not only think about the situation, but also feel its effects. In the calm of a fire department classroom, it is easy to intellectualize what you would do under stressful conditions. The key to effective training is to create conditions where people actually feel the stress and must learn how to control not only their minds, but also their physiological reactions.

In some ways, it is similar to fire training. You can sit around a table and talk about what to do under certain fire conditions, but until you have been in the heat, darkness and confined space of a real fire, it is impossible to know what you would really do.

Effective fire training improves community relations

Role playing exercises must be done right to have any value. They must be facilitated by an experienced trainer, and those who are playing roles must be well prepared.

In most cases, it is better to have people from outside the organization serve as role players. This lack of familiarity with those playing roles will reduce the tendency to treat the exercise as a joke or to step outside of roles to interact with someone who might be a friend. Some jurisdictions have chosen to train role players from different agencies who can trade off among different groups (e.g., firefighters role play for police officers, cops act as role players for EMS crews, and so on).

Whoever serves in the role of the difficult person must be specifically prepared for that role. Focused scenarios should be devised with identifiable goals for each scenario. Each training incident should be kept fairly simple and on point, with adequate time to debrief after each encounter.

When done well, role playing exercises can illustrate on a visceral level the challenges of dealing with a difficult or abusive person in real life. Such exercises can also clearly illustrate the positive and negative outcomes of different tactics and reactions.

The result of this type of training can be incidents that don’t escalate, more positive community relations, more effective emergency response, and less overall stress to the individual firefighters who are put into difficult situations when handling some of the most challenging members of their service communities.

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