Understanding the O.O.D.A. Loop

Understanding the O.O.D.A. Loop

The more you study law enforcement training, the more you are likely to see the term “OODA loop.” This term was coined by U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd to explain the dynamics of fighter combat and why some pilots succeed when others fail. Boyd concluded that the outcomes of aerial engagements were often determined by how quickly a fighter pilot can process through the OODA, which meant to observe the enemy, orient to the stimulus presented by the enemy, decide to take action, and then act on that decision. Boyd added “loop” to signify that the process was continuous as long as combat was engaged. Today, Boyd’s combat theory is being applied to military engagements, to business strategy, to litigation, and of course to law enforcement operations and individual officer defense.

The OODA Loop has its place in law enforcement, but unfortunately, the concept has become something of a training catch phrase that is often misunderstood.

What It All Means. The OODA loop is a simple yet complex summation of how the human brain processes information and how humans react. First, you observe what is going on around you using your senses. Next, you orient to what is going on around you and put it into context with information rooted in your long-term memory, including training—both good and bad—life experiences, and your genetic heritage. After processing this information you must come to a conclusion about your surroundings, and you must make a decision to act or react. The final stage, if there truly is one, is the physical action. In order to process through the OODA loop, you must perform a physical action to implement the decision you have made. If your action is appropriate and effective you begin to gain the upper hand and can often process through more OODA loop cycles at a faster tempo than your adversary, which ultimately leads to victory.

Failing to act, or failing to act quickly and appropriately, will often result in defeat. The more defeat you suffer without being able to gain an advantage, the less likely you are to have an effective physical and mental performance. This puts you behind the reaction curve, where you process information more slowly and every time you cycle through the OODA loop you are at even more of a disadvantage. Boyd understood how people process information in combat and the role that training, experience, and forethought play in maximizing your ability to be victorious.

The Way to Victory. One of the most important things that Boyd’s OODA loop can teach you as law enforcement officers is that your survival skills such as firearms training and defensive tactics training must be properly encoded into memory.

In a life or death situation, you need to be able to process through the OODA loop as quickly and effectively as possible in order to increase your odds of survival and triumph. The fastest way to process through the OODA loop is to quickly orient to what is happening and virtually bypass the decision-making process by already knowing what action to take based on the stimulus. Boyd called the process of bypassing steps of the OODA loop “implicit guidance and control.”

Implicit guidance and control is an unconscious preplanned physical response to a known threat stimulus, which is often referred to by psychologists as a “learned automatic response.” Some experts also refer to this as a “threat stimulus response pairing.”

Mental BridgesIn order for survival skills training to truly be effective, training needs to be capable of rooting its goal, purpose, tactic, or maneuver into your long-term memory. Psychologist E.R. Guthrie wrote that “A skill consists of the ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy.” For our purposes in law enforcement this seems to be a perfect definition of a skill because we must continue to face countless dangers, seen and unseen, and be able to bring about a proper end result with maximum certainty as quickly and safely as possible. Failure for us to do so can end in tragedy and/or unnecessary danger to the public at large.

Building these skill sets can often be accomplished by using repetitive, emotionally based interactive training that utilizes at least two human senses and is relevant to the trainee. When a skill set is encoded into your long-term memory, the body is physically building synaptic connections between brain cells. These connections help form your unconscious memory and, much like the physical training itself, the more you exercise your brain the stronger the connections become. This process can include both physical and mental training.

An easy way to understand this is to imagine two bridges as representing these synaptic connections in your mind. The first bridge is a rickety old rope bridge with missing planks. The bridge sways high above the bottom of a deep cavern and it creaks in the wind. This rickety bridge is there because you built it in one day, and you did not put the proper effort into building it. The failure to properly maintain the bridge over the years has also caused it to become more and more unstable; the ropes are rotting and the connections are weak. Unfortunately, the only reason you built the bridge was because you were told to do so by a skill set instructor, and you only had to walk across it one time by taking baby steps in order to show you could. This happens all the time in law enforcement when officers and trainers don’t think the training will actually have to be used to survive.

On the other hand, the second bridge is a large, multilane highway span that you and your brain can race across. When you built this bridge you put lots of time, effort, and physical expense into its completion, and you understand that you must properly maintain it so that it too does not deteriorate. You had expert help in building it to make certain all the connections are correct and the bridge does not fail you. You built it because you understood the need to do so, and you have most likely raced across it at least once at work, or have at least envisioned racing across it often while mentally preparing for your survival.

To understand why we want the skill sets built into your long-term unconscious memory, you should be familiar with the Theory of Schema, which states that “The conscious mind is slow and the unconscious mind is fast.” According to this theory, if you have to think before reacting, your body will suffer an approximately half-second delay. On the other hand, if you unconsciously react to a threat or stimulus, your reaction time is a small fraction of a half second.

With these pictures in your mind, simply think about which bridge you want your brain and your trained survival skill set to have to race across while engaging someone who is determined on taking your life in a cold, dark alley.

When you have a greater understanding of how the OODA loop works, how skills training is set into your long-term unconscious memory, and how these can affect your physical response to a threat stimulus, it is easier to understand the need for proper skills training. Not only can the training assist you in properly orienting and responding to a threat, it can help you avoid improper responses.

Unfortunately, officers are sometimes improperly trained, and habits are not corrected and allowed to continue in training. When this happens officers are unfairly placed in situations that may lead to ultimate failure and loss. Take, for example, the tragic story in Colorado where an officer was involved in a deadly gun battle with an armed assailant and reportedly fired at the assailant at distance from the high-tuck position. This improper, most likely unconscious response, allowed the firearm to entangle with the officer’s uniform, causing the officer’s gun to jam. Unable to quickly fix the jam, the officer then reportedly raised a hand and appeared to wait momentarily for assistance, only to be executed by an advancing assailant who was more than willing to take advantage of the situation.

The tragic loss of an officer’s life in this situation may have stemmed from both improper training, shooting from the high-tuck position while the assailant was not in close quarters, and from a bad, uncorrected habit of raising a hand for assistance on the firing range. When trainers allow officers to do such things on the range they allow them to become a learned automatic response to a malfunction.

In order to help prevent future tragedies, we owe it to ourselves and our families to ensure that we, as officers, trainers, and supervisors, know and understand how the OODA loop works and how to maximize our training for survival. Take time to look at your physical traits and habits at work. Could you be unknowingly setting yourself up for failure?
Are your trainers presenting training because they are required to, or are they presenting well thought out training that is more likely to help you survive life and death struggles?

For more information about Rally Point Training Consulting or our O.O.D.A. Loop based Officer Survival seminars visit us at www.RallyPointTraining.com or like us at www.facebook.com/RallyPointTC. For more information about the author connect with Derek at www.linkedin.com/in/derekstephensrallypoint


Hitting the Mark in Training

It is unfortunate how easily law enforcement trainers and departments can miss the mark when it comes to officer survival training. Most of these misses may be attributed to simple human errors including a lack of understanding, complacency and laziness. These factors simply mean that departments, for whatever reason, don’t want to change or don’t see the need to change training tactics and techniques.

If you step back and look at this situation you may see that those “misses” are actually failures and failing to properly train officers can lead to devastating consequences for officers, agencies and the public. Not only can failing to properly train lead directly to inappropriate and ineffective actions by officer it is also a major component of most law suits against law enforcement agencies when it comes to excessive force claims and claims of civil rights violations.

In Graham v. Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989) the courts not only set the precedent for the three pronged test, which most agencies and individual officers are aware of, but the court also set the custom, pattern or practice precedent. Custom, pattern or practice can be summed up to show that if a department’s customs, patterns or practices demonstrate such an obvious need for different training that policy makers could reasonable be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need, under the concept of knew or should have known, and liability could therefore arise for the department. Unfortunately for departments and officers involved in civil rights litigation the courts may believe they see an obvious need for different training when policy makers “missed” or failed to see the same need.

Even if departments are compliant with the orders set forth by the court in Graham v. Connor they may still be missing the root of the training issue, a lack of understanding of how the brain works along with body and how to positively affect change. In order for agencies and officers to overcome this hurdle they again often need to step back and look at the situation or training.

As more officers are learning, a good way to get a fresh look at survival skills training is to start with a basic understanding of the O.O.D.A. Loop and how it affects officers. The O.O.D.A. Loop is a simplified, but in depth way to look at how the human brain processes information and helps us makes decisions and spring to action when presented with potential threats.

One concept often missed when dealing with the O.O.D.A. Loop is what Boyd called “implicit guidance and control”. Implicit guidance and control represents an unconscious pre-planned physical response to a threat stimulus and is also known as a learned automatic response. Simplified, this ability means that we can perform a physical skill, such as drawing your firearm from a level three retention holster, under great physical and psychological stress without conscious thought or intent. When we perform these types of actions unconsciously they are faster, feel more instinctive and allow our conscious minds to focus on threats and other tasks at hand. While it is becoming more common to hear about the O.O.D.A. loop in magazine articles, web blogs or training seminars, many instructors miss the mark when they talk about the O.O.D.A. Loop because they fail to step back and see how to incorporate the ins and outs of the O.O.D.A. Loop into officer survival skills training for proper long term memory encoding and they only use it as the catch phrase of the day.

A recently published article claiming to have been written by a skills instructor with decades of experience in instruction taught that physical survival skills, much like the skill of knowing how to drive a vehicle, are stored in your short term memory. This constitutes a great “miss” when trying to get survival skills training to hit the mark and shows a lack of understanding of how and where memory is encoded, how the O.O.D.A. Loop works and how to maximize training to increase our odds of survival.

It is true that your short term memory is vital to officer survival and can be effectively used to make an action plan including available options for officers when facing immediate “what if” situations, thereby helping to speed up their O.O.D.A. Loops. It can also be very successfully used as a virtual trainer to help strengthen long term memory connections in the brain but the unconscious, pre-planned, physical threat-stimulus response survival skills that officers need to win the day must be properly rooted in an officers unconscious long term memory so the skills can be employed without the need for conscious thought or decision making in a critical stress environment. In order to accomplish this task we must understand how we learn and how memory is encoded, both positively and negatively.

Aristotle said “Learning occurs through the association of two stimuli or a stimulus and a response”. Survival skills training should consist of the association of true to life stimuli and a true to life response, or as close as we can safely get in law enforcement training to help properly encode it into our long term unconscious memory.

It is a challenge for supervisors, survival skills instructors and officers of all ranks and positions to step back, look beyond their typical training programs and find ways to maximize them to hit the mark. Take a fairly typical firearms qualification course and the phenomenons of sympathetic and contagious fire as an example.

For years the act of firing your weapon at a suspect or potential threat just because your partner fired was considered to be “sympathetic fire”. A deeper look leads many to classify sympathetic fire as an involuntary startle response from the sympathetic nervous system when the officer improperly has their finger on the trigger and for whatever reason becomes scared or startled. With this definition of a sympathetic nervous system response we can easily see that the training failure is allowing officers to disengage their safety and put their finger on the trigger before intentionally firing their weapons.

A better label for the old sympathetic fire syndrome, a voluntary responsive reaction by a fellow officer to fire at a potentially deadly threat based solely on the fact that another officer fired rounds at the same potential threat; would be “contagious fire”. Contagious fire incidents may involve numerous officers all firing solely because a fellow officer is firing. This phenomenon has also been called an “associative firing impulse” and occurs when officers believe that the other officer who initiated fire must have correctly identified a deadly threat. During these incidents officers who may not have originally fired their weapons may end up firing their weapons as the number of rounds fired by other officers increases.

When contagious fire is captured on video it often appears as sporadic uncontrolled mayhem where officers are sometimes caught in the crossfire, which can also cause more problems when the officers become mistaken about the actual origin of the firing. We all know that the news media and defense lawyers love to play up the number of rounds fired during any officer involved shooting but it sometimes appears that we may feed their fire during contagious fire incidents.

Not all situations where multiple officers fire a large number of rounds at a deadly threat to life indicate any type of a failure, but we must admit that there are situations where stress, emotions, a lack of information and a lack of proper training can easily lead to and have led to uncontrolled, contagious fire incidents by officers who never even saw or understood the threat that were trying to stop. Officers may also be mistaken about the origin of the shots fired which they are hearing thus compounding the situation.

The challenge to trainers and agencies is how to combat this type of overreaction and to keep the officers and public safe while limiting their liability. First ask the question, “Do we train officers to shoot just because other officers are shooting?” The answer should be “No” but look at a fairly typical firearms qualification course. Officers are lined up in front of paper target and told to “fire” or given another threat command when the instructor wants them to fire a set number of rounds at the target, which may or may not be a lifelike threat target with a deadly weapon. If an officer misses the instructor give the threat command he/she will likely begin firing just because other officers are firing. If they don’t respond to the sound of gunfire in this manner they will likely fail the qualification course because they did not get enough rounds on the target.

Repeat this type of qualification course over and over throughout the years and it can easily seed in an officer’s long term unconscious memory as a threat-stimulus response to the sound of gunfire next to them.

We all know that officers are all responsible for their own actions and rounds down range but if you don’t think this type of response is programmed into officers then imagine this training scenario. Officers are safely lined up in front of threat targets at an indoor range. The instructor turns out the lights and without the officers knowledge turns the targets to the side so no physical threat target is presented to the officers. The instructor gives the threat command and fires a blank round aimed downrange from the line. Do you think other officers will fire their weapons? Will more officers, who did not originally fire, fire their weapons because more and more officers are? If you think that even one officer will suffer from contagious fire there is a training failure.

How can we combat this, especially if we don’t have access to turning targets? It may be as easy as making the officers think momentarily before firing on the threat command. An example of how this may be accomplished is by placing different colors, shapes and or numbers on the threat targets. When the threat command is given a color, shape or number is also called out so that officers must quickly analysis their own target to see if it matches the threat target before engaging the target. If the color, shape or number does not match the threat indicator the target is not a threat and the officer must wait to engage even though officers next to them are firing their weapons. This type of training can also help to encourage officers to better scan their threats to ensure that they are not missing vital information like a police badge on the belt line. If you want to make sure that officers are still willing to shoot and assist their partners, allow them to safely shoot at a partner’s threat target if safe to do so.

While this is just one possible solution, and creative thinking by officers and trainers can yield many different training options, it may be the first step to avoiding a future deadly mistake. All agencies need to occasionally step back, look at the physical survival skills training that they are providing to their officers, and be willing to review their training programs to ensure that they are not missing the mark when it comes to officer survival training.

For more information on the O.O.D.A, Loop and how it affects officer survival visit us at www.RallyPointTC.com, likes Rally Point Training Consulting on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RallyPointTC and follow us on LinkedIn atwww.linkedin.com/company/Rally-Point-Training-Consulting

Finding Your Victory!

One of the most important things to understand about officer survival skills training, including firearms, arrest control and defensive tactics, is that while officers are training their bodies to perform a distinct physical action under stress they are actually preparing their minds first. During a quick search on the internet you can easily find video after video of law enforcement officers getting shot in a variety of circumstances. Their actions and reactions say a lot about their mindsets going into the deadly confrontations. From shock and acceptance of failure, asking another officer to tell your wife and kids that you love them while dealing with a non-life threatening flesh wound, to the absolute resolve to win after having taken physical punishment that could easily have killed others. The difference often lies in the officer’s mental preparation. The acknowledgement that no matter what happens they will win and be victorious. It is an inherent ability of the officers to find their victory.

A few decades ago law enforcement trainers began realizing how vital an officer’s mindset was and began training law enforcement officers in the concept of not accepting death. To hang on during the worst moments of their lives’ and refuse to die. To think positive thoughts about friends and family and how you will see them again.

While an “I will not die today” mindset is vital in law enforcement, a strong argument can be made that it is not enough. A refusal to die, while a good beginning, still leaves officers with an option to lose. It sets a minimum standard and not an ultimate goal. It allows officers to lay in the mud waiting for someone else to take control instead of pushing the officer to own the situation that they find themselves in and control their outcome.

When Deputy DeGrow from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office was shot six times while investigating a burglary in 2011, including being shot in the face and losing an eye, the radio traffic proves that he was able to remain calm and took control of his situation. Deputy DeGrow was not only able to call for help and provide fellow deputies with information on his assailant he seemed to realize that not only was he going to need medical assistance but that he was not in a good place for his help to find and assist him. Deputy DeGrow can be heard working his way out of his location to an area where help could get to him easier, thus allowing him to take ownership in his situation. When we can take ownership of these situations we can help reduce our fear, stress and anxiety. When we reduce our stress we can help fend off panic and the unconscious fight, flight and freeze response, allowing us to keep our conscious thinking minds in control in a time when we need it the most.

When Officer Osilka from the Loveland Police Department was shot in the line of duty at point blank range by a sawed off shotgun he suffered major trauma to his upper chest leaving a whole the size of his fist. While the round was stopped by his vest the physical compression into his chest cavity broke numerous bones and collapsed both of his lungs leaving him struggling to breathe to stay alive. After returning fire at the fleeing suspect Officer Osilka began a self-assessment in an attempt to determine the extent of his injuries. Not being able to see his injury because it was too high on his chest he reached up with his hand and found that he was now able to put his own hand inside of his chest.

Running out of air and with an extreme burning feeling in his chest Officer Osilka’s thoughts turned to his family and how he was not going to let his assailant win and take him from his family. Officer Osilka always knew that this day was a possibility and had pre-determined that he was not going to allow someone else to win. Quickly realizing that he was in charge of his own fate Officer Osilka told himself one simple thing. As long as I can breathe, even a little, I can stay alive. Officer Osilka was able to radio for help and begin broadcasting suspect information, eventually leading to his capture and conviction. Even while being rolled into the operating room Officer Osilka’s refusal to lose was apparent when he called his wife on a borrowed cell phone and told her that he had been shot, was going into surgery and would see her in a little while.

A victory under such circumstances does not always come with winning the gunfight but it does come when we take ownership of the situation and take control of our own survival. Both officers lived through their encounters after suffering life threatening wounds.  Both officers got to see their attackers off to prison but most importantly they both took control, owned the situations that they found themselves in and found their victories at a time when they needed it the most.

Officers owe it to themselves, their friends, their partners, and most importantly their families to take a new look at their mental preparation and mindsets. It is not enough for officers to be determined not to die when someone is attempting to take their lives, they need to be fully committed to coming out on top and being victorious.

For more information about Rally Point Training Consulting or our O.O.D.A. Loop based Officer Survival seminars visit us at www.RallyPointTraining.com or like us at www.facebook.com/RallyPointTC. For more information about the author connect with Derek at www.linkedin.com/in/derekstephensrallypoint