Once a month, Jody and I hold a Defensive Combat (DC) class. The real world scenario based class involves lots of moving, decision making, and of course shooting. By moving, I don’t mean the typical take one step to the left (right, forward, or backward) that you find in classes with 30 students on the line—I mean continuously moving while engaging multiple reactive targets. In the blazing Florida heat, safety dictates that watching for any signs of fatigue in the students is paramount. Once we observe it, it’s time to conclude the training as both safety and learning will decline.
With the news of a negligent discharge (ND) this past weekend by one of the icons of the firearm training industry, I evaluated what information was available to seek the root cause. The ND happened at the end of the training class, just before the qualification shoot. At least three people had confirmed that the revolver was unloaded prior to the ND. So how can three people, one an industry icon and another a Range Safety Officer, miss seeing a round in a revolver’s cylinder?
Some will cite confirmation bias—we see what we want to see. If we expect to see a cylinder devoid of cartridges because we know the gun is unloaded, that’s what we tend to see. We know the gun is empty, so we go through the rote of opening the cylinder and then closing it. But at least three people failed to see the cartridge; confirmation bias alone does not explain this safety mirage.
I don’t know what the weather conditions were that weekend where the class was held and I don’t know how long everyone had been on the range that day or the day(s) leading up to it. Based on typical descriptions for the type of class where the ND occurred and this being just before the final qualification, everyone had likely been on the range a great deal.
Let’s face it, we tend to get sloppy when we are fatigued; with firearms, sloppy equals dangerous. This doesn’t usually get taught in Instructor or RSO classes, but it should! While it is critical for Instructors and RSOs to be watching for signs of fatigue in others, it is just as important for every person on the range to be watching for signs of fatigue in others AND THEMSELVES.
Signs of Fatigue
Signs to look for in others and ourselves include loss of motivation, slowed reflexes and responses, poor concentration, sore or aching muscles, and weakness. We don’t learn well when we are fatigued, nor do we perform well.
One of the unmistakable signs of fatigue is wanting to get the shooting over with. When you find yourself taking shots that you know aren’t going to be good, you have reached the end of valuable training.
Staving Off Fatigue
None of us want to face it, but we are all getting older and fatigue sets in earlier and often more suddenly than when we were in our prime. There is no magic cure for fatigue; when we’ve pushed our body to its limits, we start entering a state where it is much easier—and likely—to make mistakes. We can, however, take some steps to delay the onset of fatigue.
Starting off the day well rested will have considerable impact on delaying fatigue. Staying hydrated means consciously forcing yourself to drink; if you wait until you are thirsty it’s already too late. Particularly in the heat, stick with water and products designed to replace vitamins and minerals lost through exertion and sweating.
Speaking of sweating, pay close attention to the amount of sweat produced by yourself and others. The cessation of sweating is a telltale sign of heatstroke—a medical emergency.
Instructors should be giving their students regular breaks where there can go inside to an air conditioned environment or at least get into the cooler shade to sit down and relax. Instructors should also be constantly reminding the students to drink. Eating small snacks is another good idea.
Our range has shade sails suspended over it so that shooters can avoid the sun as much as possible. It has large gazebos with picnic tables for the non-shooters to remain in the shade and be able to sit down. We are also in the process of adding fans in the gazebos and on the range to help as well.
People with medical issues can become fatigued much more rapidly than others. This is why paying attention to everyone on the range, shooters or Instructors/RSOs, is vitally important to the safety of all. As certain drugs can have side effects brought about by sunlight, everyone should be aware of the potential effects of what they are taking.
For Instructors, finding out if anyone has a medical condition that could impact their range experience is important. It can be as simple as asking at the beginning of a class for anyone with any potential issues to speak with you during a break. Including a short section in the range briefing about fatigue is another good idea.
Get a good night’s rest before the class or range session. Take water and sports drinks, along with snacks, with you. Recognize those signs of fatigue in yourself and others so that you can have a safe and valuable range experience. Most importantly, know when it is time to stop training.