Partners Shoothouse - Sentinel Concepts, Steve Fisher
During a beautiful September weekend in 2017- two friends loaded up the truck with me and took a 13 hour drive north to Alliance, Ohio. The destination was the famous Police Training facility with their 8,100 square foot live-fire shoothouse. The course was taught by Steve Fisher of Sentinel Concepts, who has long been on my short-list of instructors that I wanted to train under. Joining me would be two friends of mine with whom I have spent plenty of range time, guest instructor Clark S. and a gentleman named Matt who is a Team Commander of a SWAT team in an adjoining county from where I live. The car-ride was fairly brutal, but the commradery that the road provides was all in good fun.
Due to the nature of the content in this course, there are several areas that will be intentionally vague and/or completely omitted. Photos and Videos including course content or participants are strongly discouraged or prohibited for multiple reasons, and all of which are completely understandable. Some members of both the instructor cadre and participants are still operational in their roles in Law Enforcement, so their identify is sensitive. Furthermore, the Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP's) that would be taught and practiced at length are sensitive in nature as it contains many of the same TTP's used by both law enforcement and military units. Therefore, the photography in this AAR will be slightly less inclusive than I usually provide, and the descriptions of much of the course-content will be censored. This will also help to not confuse or convolute the topics for any potential future students that are considering taking this course.
The facility at Alliance Police Training is truly top-notch. While I could describe it in detail for you, it is easier to show you... Below is a video that walks you through the facility that hosted this course. In fact, many of the people featured in the video participated in the course! Click the tab below to see the video:
As everyone got settled in, the instructors took time to introduce themselves and provide a little bit about their backgrounds. Our instructor cadre would include Steve Fisher (primary instructor), Joe (Army), Chris (Federal Agent), Mike (SWAT LEO), and Bill (Army). One highlight worth noting here is that during the introduction of the instructors, all of the instructors (minus Steve) revealed that they had on matching T-shirts which had a picture of Steve smoking a cigar and the slogan "Yeti lives matter" on them (Steve's nickname is "Yeti"). As one would imagine, this received a loud laugh and set the tone for the course as everyone was clearly going to have a good time. Throughout the introduction, the instructor cadre reinforced that each participant would have fun but that the course content itself was not to be taken lightly. Another point that was driven home was that everything we would be learning throughout this course was a way of doing two-man CQB; not the way of doing it. There are literally countless ways to go about any given task, and each of the instructors were able to provide their own experience, preferences, and "tricks/tips" that worked well for them. We'll come back to this later, but this served as an invaluable contribution to the class, as everyone has different physical assets that provide them with opportunities or challenges.
Safety and Medical Briefing
From the introductions we moved into the safety briefing. The main point of this section was to familiarize everyone with the expectations of the course. This is not a basic firearms course, and so there was an inherent understanding of the rules of firearm safety that was required prior to arrival. With that said, they were covered again to take away any excuses for unsafe behavior, and a safety/medical briefing was covered at length. The main take-away of the safety briefing is that there are always responsibilities on the range. They are all YOURS in this course. YOU are the only one that will get you hurt in this class.
Regarding the medical briefing, contingency plans were covered in the very unlikely event that someone were to be injured. We identified those of us with medical training, assigned the tasks of calling for emergency services amongst the instructor cadre, and identified key points within the facility that would be of primary concern. This portion of the course was taken very seriously and handled professionally... Exactly as you would expect from top-level instructors...
Concepts of Close Quarters Battle
Before we even did a walk-through the shoot house, we discussed and identified the concepts of CQB as well as the primary objectives of some of the TTP's (Tasks, Techniques, Procedures) that would be a baseline for the course. Mike started us out from the very beginning to make sure that we were all on the same page and using the same vocabulary.
First we identified the primary objectives of CQB:
- Move to the breach point
- Make entry (have a successful breach)
- Secure the Structure
- Secure ALL occupants within the structure
Within the CQB objectives, there are priorities that must be considered. They are easily categories as People, Portals, and Places. They are further broken down into the following:
- People: People with guns; people without guns
- Portals: Doors (open vs. closed), Openings (hallway entries), Windows, etc.
- Places: Open spaces, Open Doors, Closed Doors, Obstructions, Six (places you've already been)
Within the Priorities of CQB, there are also Priorities of Life that have to be considered, specifically for the Law Enforcement Officers in the course:
- First Responders
- Threats / Bad Guys
When communicating in CQB, there are three types of information:
- Routine (the obvious things that everyone sees)
- Important (obstructions, portals, etc.)
- Critical (about to take a shot, need support, etc.)
With everyone in agreement regarding the above concepts, move into some more specific concepts that would act as good "rules to live by" during the training. During CQB, there is a lot that can happen in a relatively short period of time, so we need to be able to compartmentalize how we process information into as simple chunks as possible. This will help us to work through problems as they become more and more complex as the training progresses.
Doors and Rooms
We started by spending a good bit of time discussing doors and how to read them. Doors are usually categorized as either "push, pull, or non-typical" doors. In other words, from your position in relationship to the closed door, you either push it away from you, pull it toward you, or slide/rotate the door. Closed doors will allow you the opportunity to stack on the door however you'd like. The hinges and knob will also tell you the direction of travel for the door. Doors will lead into either hallways or other rooms. Therefore, the placement of the door dictates whether a room is a corner-fed room or a center-fed room. Being a center-fed vs. corner-fed room will dictate whether there are two hard angles or just one. Therefore, if we read our side of the wall correctly and then read the door correctly from where we are- we should have a pretty clear understanding of whether we are about to enter a center-fed or corner-fed room, the direction of travel for the door (which will dictate the entry method and direction), etc. In other words, we can combine multiple simple tasks into a larger picture and allow us to accomplish a lot more complex tasks one little piece at a time. While this was not necessarily a new concept for me- it was very interesting to hear each of the instructors provide their descriptions of "how" and "why" each piece of this process is important.
Shapes and Entries
When we are in either residential or commercial structures, we are not always inside of a room. Many times we are in large open areas, hallways, entry ways, etc. If we were to try to memorize a solution for every possible shape and layout of any given structure, it would be overwhelming and unattainable. However, by breaking down virtually any area into the common shapes that they present, it allows us to systematically learn just a few methods which will solve a myriad of problems. Therefore, we worked extensively on recognizing, identifying, and navigating "L's," "T's," and "4-Way" shapes. For instance, entering a corner-fed room presents an "L" shaped problem that we have to navigate. Center-fed rooms present a "T" shaped problem. Hallways with opposing doors present a "4-way" intersection. By recognizing the problem as it presents itself, we are able to communicate the identified shape and know that both us and our partner are on the same page regarding the way that we should handle the problem at hand. These two sections (Doors and Rooms and Shapes and Entries) could be a week long course each, so I won't even attempt to go through all of the different scenarios that we worked through. Just understand that if you can learn basic concepts that can be stacked and scaled together then you can solve complex problems without having to memorize and recall unrealistic procedures under pressure.
Day 1: There is no penalty for going too slow, but there are severe penalties for going too fast.
Our first few runs through the house were dry-fire, and we worked with our partners on some very simple concepts. There were multiple instructors on the ground with us, and then others that were on the cat-walk above us. This allowed for a thorough view into what we were doing both correctly and incorrectly. We went through multiple reptitions of this process through various doors, allowing us to practice from both a center-fed and corner-fed room. There were several common mistakes that the instructors identified. The first was generally the speeed of each student as virtually all of us were moving too fast. In a two-man stack, if the assaulter bites at the temptation to get in the newly opened door as fast as possible, he will almost always leave too much space between his back and the breacher after he enters the room. Especially in a center-fed room, this is problematic as it exposes the assualter's back to whatever corner he is traveling away from during entry. This hangs both he and the breacher out to dry if there is a person in the opposite corner.
During these runs, the instructors also demonstrated various techniques for CQB entries, both those that they advocate and those that they discourage- along with explanations for each.
After our initial dry runs in the house, we went back to the classroom for a group discussion on common problems that the instructors were seeing. They used the white board, demonstration, and conversation to show us what were doing incorrectly as well as how that given technique should look. They also took the time to answer questions about why we were employing certain techniques or tactics so that the information was both understandable and applicable in our minds. Steve also pointed out that he used to spend a majority of the first half of day 1 to go through everything in a classroom discussion format before spending most of the second half of day 1 on the range. He mentioned that many students lost their focus and attention span if they sat for too long, so now they like to take us on the range and let us go through things (albeit very sloppy) to keep us focused. This is a great method of teaching, and one that I will be employing in my courses as well.
As everyone got our gear back on and headed back out, we were now in a live fire shoothouse environment. We would now have the opportunity to work on reading the rooms, addressing the threats, communicating with our partners, making entry, performing follow-up scans, etc. As with any training course, there were teams in the groups that were more capable than others and performed at different levels of proficiency. As is common in every single course I participate in, there were obviously two contributing factors to the performance of each participant:
- Firearm Proficiency
- The human brain can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. When running guns through a house, there are a LOT of things that the mind will have to process through. If a participant can truly manipulate their firearm at a sub-conscious level then it allows their mind to focus on the other tasks that require additional thought processing. For instance: reloads, malfunction correction, muzzle discipline, safety manipulation, etc. should all be so second nature that it doesn't require your mind to use computational resources in order to perform those tasks. Therefore, your brain can focus 100% on all of the other problems at hand. If this is the level of proficiency with which someone is handling their firearm, then they will inevitably be able to consciously work through the other problems they face.
- Physical Fitness
- This course required a full loadout and heavy kit. On my particular setup I had a rifle, handgun, belt containing two spare mags for each and a medical kit, two flashlights, body armor in a plate carrier which also carried two more mags for each, a second medical kit, and a ballistic helmet. While this course didn't include much "exercise" in it, the sheer weight of the equipment becomes heavy over the course of an 18 hour day. Day 1 was opened up at 08:00 and finished just shy of 01:00 the following day. The people who were more physically fit were able to focus with increased mental clarity when they weren't having to pay attention to the physical challenges involved. Again, it saves computational resources in the brain for the problems that opposing forces are presenting instead of inherent problems that you brought with you to the fight. Prior to this course I had lost more than 25 lbs in about 2 months. Being as I was putting on about 30 lbs of gear, I was happy to have not brought the additional 25 pounds of problems along with me.
After a very brief lunch break, we had about 30 minutes to go into the house and walk through anything we wanted with our partners. The instructors were walking around and helping answer any questions or provide any insight as to what we could be doing better. My partner and I used this time to really dial in our timing for breaching and entering. Others used their time to work on cross-coverage, scans, or other skills that they originally struggled with. This 30-45 session was likely the most enlightening of Day 1 for me, as we were able to use that time to verbally iron out some things that weren't clicking for us.
The afternoon of day 1 contained several more runs where we would continue to refine our skills and abilities under the watchful eye of the instructors. They saw and heard everything. When you engaged and disengaged your safety, where your shot placement hit, your footwork, your scanning speed and directions, etc. were all under scrutiny. The participants that were more proficient faced scrutiny at more granular levels while those that are a little less experienced were corrected on more broad topics. This allowed each participant to leave having moved the needle on their skill set no matter where their abilities were when they arrived.
Night 1: Low-Light / No-Light Runs
After a quick dinner break, everyone arrived back in the classroom and prepared to work into the evening. Low-Light training is one of my personal favorite aspects of firearm training due to the increased complexity, required focus, and likelihood of potential real-world application. All in all, the lack of light can be a large detractor for everyone involved in a real-world low-light encounter. Therefore, if my training is superior than that of the other party, then I welcome the ability to be able to use their handicapped abilities to my advantage.
This section began in the classroom and included a demonstration and discussion of lighting techniques and technology. We talked about the number of lumens desired to complete the tasks we would potentially face as well as the various advantages and disadvantages of multiple light manufacturers. We talked about features of lights that we would want or not want, as well as lighting techniques that could be used indoors for both administrative and fighting purposes. The underlying assumption was that everyone present was already familiar with low-light techniques, and everyone had at least one free-hand light as well as a weapon mounted light on both their rifle and handgun.
As we worked through the night runs, the required level of mental focus went up dramatically. With that said, it also provided some very unique opportunities to visualize some things in a very clear manner. For instance, the instructors had told me several times throughout the day that I was performing my post-engagement scan too quickly. I was looking but wasn't seeing in some cases because of the speed that I was at during the scan. During the night runs, the room lights up in a very precise area where your light (and therefore your eyes) are focused. It was during a night run when I performed my post-engagement scan and saw my light bouncing rapidly across the farside wall that I realized exactly what they meant all along. I was getting my eyes and muzzle to thoroughly cover my sectors of fire, but I couldn't be adquately processing the information because I was going too quickly.
This was easily the single-most used command and correction for everyone in the course. I wrote it in my notes after almost every run from day 1. One of the instructors phrased it well during a break as he said "Has anyone here been told to speed up, that they were going too slow?" The obvious answer was negative, and it helped to reinforce that we all needed to check our pace and make sure we dialed it back. Footwork, scanning, moving together as a team- pick anything with movement and virtually everyone there was doing it too quickly at some point throughout the course. The low-light runs were when it clicked for me, and the speeds that we were operating at were dialed down tremendously from there.
Each run introduced increasing complexity that required us to utilize TTP's that had been introduced to us in between runs. Like building a brick wall, each run allowed us to test the foundation, and between each run it allowed us to add another brick to that layer. Several participants, myself included, would get three runs deep and then obviously drop the ball on a skill learned from 3 runs prior. Another common mistake that was amplified by the lack of light was some peoples' desire to walk backwards. Remembering back to the Weapon Systems Integration course that I previously did with Dave Harrington, I thought about something he emphasized: "The manner and method in which you move will be dictated by the overwhelming need to maintain visual contact with the threat area." It totally made sense as I watched people maintain visual contact on a potential threat area while trying to travel in another direction. Common mistake... That's why we train.
"Don't remember the mistakes that you made. Remember the lessons you learned."
Each run provided an opportunity for the instructors to provide you with feedback on what you did well and what needed improvement. They also took the time to ask why we chose certain TTP's versus others, and walked through the advantages and disadvantages of the other hypothetical outcomes. It was enlightening conversation and helped to fill in the gaps in the mental puzzle of it all.
As we ended Night 1, we were all physically and mentally drained. We were ready to shower and hit the bed, only to return the following morning and continue learning.
Day 2: This is not a shooting class. This is a problem-solving class.
Arriving at Day 2, we re-briefed the lessons from the previous day and the instructors answered a few questions that came up. Fairly quickly, we were back in the house for another session of dry-fire runs where we were again able to work on anything we wanted to work on. Similar to this session from the previous day, this session was worth every second for me and allowed me to fine-tune some things that were really starting to click. We asked questions. We challenged TTP's that we thought might have better alternatives. We requested feedback on ideas and implementation of skills that we were practicing. Honestly, it was worth the drive and the tuition just for the dry runs.
Day 2 spun up pretty quickly as we jumped right out of dry-fire and into increasingly complex life-fire runs with our partners. After completing our runs, we would wander up to the cat-walk and get a bird's eye view of the next group as they worked through the same problems. It was a fantastic way to watch from above and see what the instructors were seeing. We could see what others were doing (both correctly and incorrectly), and could apply that to our own game. It was a great teaching method made available only through an awesome facility.
All in all, we went through an additional 4 runs on day 2, each adding layers of complexity and required problem solving. By this point, my partner and I had really got better with timing, speed, communication, and reading the rooms together. It was coming together nicely.
The end of Day 2 was more classroom discussion talking about more common mistakes that the instructors saw, as well as some conceptual and philosophical discussions about the need for training similar to this course. The instructors and each participant all provided some final thoughts, and we broke for the day. Day 2 ended just shy of 16:00. We were happy to get out an hour early as we had a long drive back to Georgia in our immediate future. We talked to some of the instructors and other participants for a few minutes, and we were off. Off to reflect on the training, to recall and discuss what we liked and what we would like to have done differently, and to give each other hours of grief in the truck ride home.
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
As is usual for me to do with any After-Action Report, I would like to break down my "cliff-notes" synapsis into three sections which will provide my opinion and feedback to both the instructor cadre and anyone who might potentially take this course in the future.
I know this section is usually the overpowering section of these reports- but it makes sense as to why that is... I choose my instructors carefully. I research their backgrounds, their training methods, their teaching styles, and gauge my expectations accordingly. I've long wanted to jump on the opportunity to train with Steve Fisher, so this had high expectations for me going in. With that said, it delivered. My largest "compliments" for this section are to the instruction provided as well as the facility. To have a truly 360° (and 8,100 sq ft) shoot house with a cat walk is a fantastic opportunity for training. Alliance has hosted many of the country's best in the civilian markets, Law Enforcement, and Military. It's worth the trip.
Steve and his group of instructors did a fantastic job. They were attentive, light-hearted and fun, and serious when providing instruction. They provided constructive criticism and concise instruction. The number of runs that were provided were both long enough in duration as well as ample enough in number to provide testing and reinforcement of the skill sets explored. The weather was absolutely perfect for us during the entire course, and the addition of the night runs allowed us to test gear, skills, and equipment setups in multiple conditions. It was a well-rounded course, for certain.
The largest area of improvement that I believe could be adapted into this course would be a very easy one to implement. So much so, in fact, that it was addressed on Day 2. That would be the way that "out of play" areas were marked. Throughout numerous runs, barricades and visual/physical obstructions were placed strategically to make you work around them. However, with several of them it gave me the impression that contents on the other side of them were out of play for that particular run. Furthermore, the house is configured with a lot of doors so that the instructors can alter the layout and force center-fed vs. corner-fed entries. This gives an unnatural amount of doors in some of the rooms. Usually, two thirds of the doors are "out of play" and are made to emulate a complete wall, meaning they aren't to be addressed. I would have liked to have seen a more standardized and uniform method of marking areas that are out of play to avoid confusion. During one run, my partner and I were confused about an area that was actually in-play but we that were uncertain of because it contained tables turned over for physical obstruction. It took us a moment to realize that it was not a true barrier and rather just representing visual obstruction. However, later as we approached another door I called out that there was an opening upcoming to our right, only to be told by the instructors that it was out of play. On day 2, there were multiple doors that had one piece of caution tape across them, indicating that they were out of play. It was far easier to read the room as the instructors wanted us to by visually identifying these areas. Yes, this is a stretch for a "bad" part of the class- but it is something that I feel would add value to future classes.
Another aspect of the course isn't a "bad thing" but moreso just "a necessary thing." Similar to our review of the Home Defense CQB course, this course included quite a bit of downtime between runs. This provides you with the opportunity to discuss or even practice concepts outside of your runs, but it does come with its distractions. The counter-argument to this part is that the instructors really do spend adequate time with each group to ensure that they are getting everything they need to be successful, and that took longer with some groups than it did with others. It's a necessary evil, and as previously mentioned- isn't really "a bad thing." There is simply no fast way to learn these skills, and therefore there is no fast way to teach them either. If I could find this course offered in a 3 day format, I'd be ecstatic. I think this would be optimal as it would provide one more day (and night) of fine-tuning the skills and additional runs to test them.
(As a follow-up, Steve has indicated that he has modified this course in the 2018 schedule. He was already aware of both of these minor issues and has made changes by using an "X" system for marking out-of-play areas and also by offering this course in 3 day blocks! I'm going to make it a point to try to jump on this in 2018!)
This section is obviously dependent on my interpretation and my experience in the course, so it isn't meant to apply to everyone reading this. With that said- it often contains some things that I think potential students should be aware of. The first "ugly" item had to be the drive. Alliance, Ohio is not close to Athens, Georgia- so the travel did make it challenging in such a compact time frame. If you live close enough to where this course is offered and possess the required skill sets to be safe while performing the tasks at hand- then you would be a fool to miss this course.
Next "ugly" item is the gear. By the time you are wearing the gear required to take this course, you've added more than 25 pounds to yourself. That gets heavy on long days- so make sure you hydrate during the day. (You're given more than enough time to stay hydrated- just make sure you're taking advantage of it.) I can imagine that this course in the middle of summer would produce challenges and distractions that we weren't forced to work through since we were blessed with perfect weather.
Last "ugly" item is also related to the gear. I believe everyone probably brought more than they needed. The runs are short, so don't worry about a full loadout of 5+ mags. The course originally called for 300 rounds of rifle and 100 rounds of handgun per participant. I fired about 125 rounds of rifle and didn't fire a single shot from my handgun. I brought extra mags, guns, belts, chest rigs, etc. and used very little of it. 1 spare rifle mag and 1 spare handgun mag per run would have been enough and would reduce the amount of weight you're carrying around. Pack and prepare accordingly.
As a side note- I intentionally placed the round count statement in "The Ugly" instead of in "The Bad" section because I wasn't disappointed with the limited round count. I know how to shoot, and trust that everyone in the class is also very competent behind a gun. This is not a shooting class, it is a problem-solving class. Honestly, the low round-count helped offset the cost of gas, so it wasn't not a detractor for me at all. I simply wouldn't pack so much for this course the next time that I participate in it.
My largest take-away from this course is an increased hunger to learn more. I highly recommend that potential students pull the trigger on registering for this course (at this venue, if possible), and also request Steve to offer it in a 3 day format. I will definitely be interested in taking this course again, and especially if it is offered closer to Georgia!