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Mission Success: The survivor mentality
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 09/04/2007

Mission: Success – The survivor mentality
by Tracy Barnhart

Editor's Note: This week, regular columnist Tracy Barnhart provides his own ideas on the tough world of corrections. With it, he offers encouragement and tips on staying strong and keeping safe.

I can remember back in the early 1990s when I was a rookie police cadet going through the academy. At that time everything we did in training was because of officer survival and obtaining the street survival mindset so that we would not become a statistic on a wall somewhere. We were constantly drilled on how to act and to do things a certain way, how to become proficient with our weapon systems and how to, at all costs, go home at the end of our shifts. I have since changed careers into corrections, and it appears that the same outlook on officer survival and the survival mindset has not been grasped by our administrators or officers. The total outlook by corrections administrators as it pertains to officer survival training, I believe, is one of “sink or swim” or “It’s not that serious.”

I told an administrator just a few days ago that I honestly felt that our new officers are being trained on how to do their jobs by the inmates within our institution and not by our administration. We often wonder why officers react and operate as poorly as they do, but yet we never question how they are trained or if the training they do receive is getting the job done. We will spend hours upon hours each year learning how to do CPR and how to cut down a suicidal hanging inmate but yet the real information and education officers seek is left to learn on the job, but from whom, and how long it takes, is debatable.

When I was a police officer, I was extremely confident in my ability and knowledge to bring stability into a chaotic situation. I was knowledgeable in the use of force continuum as well as when and how much force to utilize. Since I have changed careers I often wonder how those clearly established and well trained unmistakably defined areas have become so blurred and cloudy.

Administrations have become so weary of how their officers will react that they have been systematically handcuffed to hold reactions until a supervisor responds and guides them through the situations. Is it no wonder that our officers slowly act and react the way that they do when they are constantly instructed not to make any decisions or actions until someone with authority says that they can or should. How about obtaining the proper mindset that we will train our officers to make the right decisions and give them the proper knowledge to react appropriately so that they will not become a liability. Give our officers the survival mentality of what to look for and how to respond to violent situations, properly de-escalate aggressors, and restore order so that they don’t get hurt or disabled. Sounds like a great prospect, doesn’t it?

So let’s talk about that gut tingly, heart racing feeling that we get when confronted by aggressive individuals or the stress that we feel has just been lifted from our shoulders when we drive out of the parking lot to go home. Stress is an element of everyday life and no one is immune from it. Select occupations, such as the military, corrections and law enforcement take on different levels and types of stress that most individuals in other occupations never experience.

These types of stress may include the fear of personal injury or death, close combat encounters, deadly force issues and the fear of the unknown. These stressful encounters cause uncontrollable anxiety and emotions referred to as survival stress, combat stress, and sudden stress syndrome.

Regardless of what it is called, it can be defined as, “the perception, real or imagined, of an imminent threat of serious personal injury or death, the stress of being tasked with the responsibility to protect another from imminent serious injury or death, under conditions where response time is minimal.”

Corrections work can be accurately described as, “long stretches of boredom, interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” Days, weeks and even months can go by without even a hint of danger, however, we all know that the tables could turn at any given moment. A lack of concentration or a moment of complacency during these moments could prove to be deadly.

Do you ever go home after your shift and just feel as if you are drained of all energy but yet your daily activity was little or nothing to recall. When you work in law enforcement and corrections your body goes into what can be called a state of hypervigilance during your shift. Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. You are constantly scanning your pod for problems, hectic encounters with inmates, though minimal, and keeping in a state of high reaction takes a toll on your body. Even though nothing might have happened today, staying in a high state of mental readiness is exhausting. Simply put, hypervigilance is a way to describe a person in a state of fight-or-flight.

So what is the survival mentality and is it just a form of paranoia? The survival triangle is based with three sides; skills, tactics and attitude or the will to survive. One side cannot function without the other. All correctional training must support all three attributes before it can instill the proper and desired effect. The belief system that most officers now have very likely does not allow them to perform at their optimum. Once they adopt a firm belief, it becomes a fixed attitude, creating a reality. The key to your mental attitude is your belief, and that your beliefs in turn determine the way you perform in defensive tactic situations. Believe in your abilities, for you are who you think you are. You have the necessary skills and abilities to overcome any adversity. Your powers lie in the thoughts that you hold. As man thinks, so does he become.

Belief + Potential + Action + Results = Survival

Every strength is a potential weakness and vice versa; if you cannot see your weakness, you cannot change it. Only through training will you learn your weakness. Being aware of your weakness will allow you to remain master of yourself in any situation. Become acquainted with every aspect of force management and seek additional defensive training. You cannot control the situations in which you find yourself in. You can only control your own responses to those very situations. You will find that if you can control your own emotions and remain calm and collected you can generate a calming effect on those around you to do the same.

The survival mentality is not just paranoia or the expectation or anticipation that something bad will happen to you during your shift. Survival mentality is the knowledge, skills and attitude that you will predict, triumph over and prevail if any such situations ever arise. All of my articles that I write are geared toward giving you the knowledge and hindsight so that you will observe, anticipate and react properly to situations that are not so favorable.

I want you to have the awareness to realize when situations may go bad, how to react appropriately and respond accordingly with the necessary and appropriate force. You must mentally rehearse and always visualize yourself winning or never being killed. Part of this rehearsal is training yourself to never give up in the event that you find yourself in a bad situation. By anticipating in stressful situations you can prepare for future ones by rehearsing the solutions in your mind before they ever happen.

Other articles by Barnhart:

Combat for the real world, 8/10/07

When the “never happens” happens to you, Part I, 7/18/07

When the “never happens” happens to you, Part II, 7/24/07

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