A little while ago, an Escapist reader named Jeff Woodall contacted me and asked if I would be interested in a piece on using role-playing to teach and reinforce lifeguarding skills. Naturally, I accepted, and here it is. Enjoy!
Rescues and Role-playing
By Jeff Woodall
Imagine this: a group of mothers decide to take their children to the swimming pool on a hot summer day. The mothers begin to talk while the older kids go to the deeper area to play. While the moms are talking when one of the younger kids about 3-4 years old decides he wants to join the bigger kids because they seem to be having a lot of fun. Looking up he sees his mother in deep conversation with the other moms. He begins walking towards the deeper area when suddenly he is in water over his head. He struggles for few seconds; unable to call for help and within moments goes under. He will struggle underwater for a few more seconds and then go unconscious sinking to the bottom to be carried by the slight current to deeper water. Meanwhile the moms, having been in deep conversation for about ten minutes, are unaware that the child has drowned. This unfortunately happens far more often than most people think.
And who do we rely on to prevent this tragedy? Perhaps a well trained Paramedic or firefighter? Nope, we rely primarily on high school kids working for close to minimum wage.
Keeping these teenagers interested in the training and getting them to understand the importance of what they are doing can be a challenge. Additionally when a real situation arises the lifeguard will be faced with a highly stressful situation that most kids their age are not used to. More often than not they will have bystanders watching, a freaked out parent, and little help. If they fail to take care of this situation not only they will end up with a tragedy in their hands but the possibility of lawsuit.
The initial training of lifeguards is similar to any classroom situation they are used to. Basically reading from a book, watching a video and then practicing the skills. They come out of the class knowing the information but after a month or two their skills deteriorate as they forget parts of the training. Ideally the organization they work for is supposed to provide training for them about once month, usually called in-service.
A couple years ago I accepted a position where I would be responsible for a group of about 100 lifeguards. Prior to my arrival they had been receiving training in order to practice and review their skills every month. Unfortunately the training was along the same lines- read, watch a video then a couple of the kids practice on a manikin while the rest who are supposed to be watching talk about other subjects, text or play with various electronic gizmos. Dull, boring and unmemorable. To make matters worse after testing some of them out I realized they were not prepared for a real life emergency. Things had to change.
I had come across the concept of using role-playing in training of lifeguards before and had used it with some success. Usually these were just limited to a few scenarios that were done over and over in the same way. What I wanted to do, however, was to take the role playing game experience and apply it to their training to make it more exciting and fun, to get them all involved and most importantly remember what they did and saw. Each scenario would be different in some way and not become routine. Now obviously I’m not wanting them to sit around a table and roll dice to see if they are successful at an action. There are however elements in all RPGs that can be utilized.
In all RPGs we have player-characters, non-player characters and a setting. For instance your typical fantasy game might include a band of adventurers (PCs), a group of goblins led by an ogre (NPCs), in a dungeon complex (setting). As the adventurers gain power and experience the NPCs become more varied and the settings will evolve as well. Different games and genres will use different trappings but those three elements are always found.
To make the scenario for training I would divide the guards up into groups. One group will be playing the part of the rescuers, the other guards will take on the parts of NPCs, victim or victims in some cases, freaked out parents are often a presence, bystanders of all sorts some making snide remarks on the guards performance or trying to interfere with the rescue. The setting can simply be the pool or any other part of the building. We can also add various props (empty jug of acid, extension cord) in the setting or other circumstances (electricity went out, there’s a fire) that may change how the guards handle the rescue. Instead of my telling them to start rescue breathing or do thirty compression and they perform the action I just give them the cues like a game master would to his players and have them respond.
A typical training scenario will be along the lines of this:
Prompter “You have just pulled a ten year old child of the deep end what do you do?”
Primary rescuer “I check for breathing-one, two, three, four…”
NPC freaked out mom “Oh my god my son!”
The other guards hold her back. One attempts to calm her down while the guard continues checking for breathing.
I have even used some Lovecraft at times:
Guards are performing rescue on an unconscious victim.
NPC approaches “Hello my name is Doctor Herbert West I can take over”
The expressions on their faces are priceless when I tell them that they have just given up the victim to someone claiming to be a fictional mad scientist.
If during their scenario they make a gross error, I let them know, as the victim will “die” or some other horrible incident will occur. This last part is especially useful, as I find many of the kids are used to guaranteed success at their other endeavors. They suddenly realize the importance of the situation.
Much like a rogue character who forgets to check for traps before unlocking the door you face the consequences of your mistake.
Afterward, we do a follow up go over what went well and what didn’t.
With these techniques I have been able to bring in different scenarios some of which are rarely thought of or practiced at similar organizations.
Everyone has a part to play in these scenarios, no one gets bored and they remember it. They have become accustomed to performing the rescues under stressful conditions, work together as a team, retain the information, think outside the box and are able to interact with actual people not just a manikin. They also learn empathy for the victim and bystanders by playing those parts and have a good time while doing it. You know, all those things that us gamers say RPGs do.
One thing that has been a surprise for the guards is when I tell them where I get my ideas. It makes them see role-playing games in a different light even the ones who are already gamers. Many people can readily see how history or reading can be used in games and vice versa. This is one example of how what we learn from games can help learning in other areas and how we as gamers can show people that maybe those games can be of more use than just a hobby.