According to preliminary data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the number of annual line of duty deaths (LODD) in the U.S. dropped to its lowest level in six decades.  In 2013, 111 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty, an eight percent decrease from the previous year and the fewest number of fatalities since 1959. Firearms-related deaths dropped by one-third to their lowest level since 1887.

The positive trend in limiting officer LODD stems from reaction to a fatalities spike in 2011. A number of new initiatives were created to promote law enforcement safety, including the VALOR training program that helps prevent violence against officers and ensures officers survive when they do encounter violence. VALOR orchestrated more than 80 regional programs and trained over 8800 officers, prompting the organization to ask for additional funding to keep up with demand. Since 2011, all categories of officer fatalities have dropped by 34 percent.

The primary goal of any first responder is to come home alive. Ongoing training is essential to improve the chances of that happening. To be effective, however, training must evolve to reflect and anticipate future emergency scenarios.

Threats today become instruction tomorrow

A few years ago, military leaders recognized the need to migrate their training to digital, web-based formats. Printed manuals quickly became out-of-date, and mission-essential training expanded to include a wide range of scenarios encountered during combat, like blowing up a bridge. Officers who previously served in areas of operation like Afghanistan or Iraq could not assume they knew what to do when returning to combat.

“Everyone is savvy enough to know that everything we do has a very short shelf life,” noted Lt. Gen. Thomas Miller, former commanding general of the U.S. First Army. “Tactics, techniques and procedures change dramatically over a 12 month period.”

All areas of public safety encounter similar problems, where mass-casualty events have encroached on previously safe spaces like elementary schools and shopping malls. Major incidents today are quickly influencing the training of tomorrow.

The Newtown tragedy, which took the lives of 20 first-graders and 6 adults, prompted authorities to reassess their own preparation and response practices. At the end of 2013, the Connecticut State Police released details of their Sandy Hook investigation, revealing evidence of shooter Adam Lanza’s mental decline. More police departments now inquire about Crisis Intervention Team training, designed to show officers how to recognize the mentally ill and de-escalate situations. Programs like Urban Shield simulate active shooter events at a school and include narratives that draw from real incidents.

In California, an investigation into a July plane crash revealed some commanding officers assigned to the San Francisco International Airport had not received adequate training in disaster response. In the aftermath of that Asiana Airlines accident, a teenage girl was killed by two emergency vehicles while she lay wounded on the runway. The San Francisco Fire Department will receive advanced instruction for commanders to help the department develop a better system for keeping track of immobile disaster victims.

Even international tragedy can influence domestic first responders. The New York Police Department used the Kenyan shopping mall shootings as a catalyst for a terror drill last November. Counterterrorism analysis of the September 21 Somali militant group attack of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall suggests that the Kenyan authorities’ response was plagued by poor equipment and coordination. NYPD officers gathered in the Brooklyn’s King Plaza mall after business hours to test their ability to thwart rampaging gunmen in a crowded public setting.

Training saves lives

The Columbine High School massacre remains one of the most infamous mass-casualty incidents in U.S. history. The lessons learned from that tragedy changed the way law enforcement responds to public shootings. Instead of creating a perimeter to contain a gunman, first responders are now trained to move quickly toward gunfire and presume an intent to kill, rather than take hostages. It is a life-saving tactic that author Dave Cullen believes helped prevent the shooter at Virginia Tech from significantly increasing his body count.

Given the fluid circumstances of modern emergencies, the skills first responders acquire are considered perishable. There is no longer a single task list to check off to achieve readiness to respond. The number of new protocols have increased beyond what our human minds can retain over long periods of time. The fine motor skills that afford officers accuracy in shooting will degrade under pressure. Repetition, often under extreme duress, is needed to keep officers sharp enough to perform. The continuing challenge for training coordinators is knowing which skills first responders already have and planning the ongoing training necessary to keep those skills relevant to the next emergency.

Such efforts demonstrate their value not just during the big emergencies, but with the routine dangers into which public safety officers rush each day. Florida Deputy John Sasche Jr. received Crisis Intervention Training as part of his job. On Christmas Eve, he turned a potential suicide into a rescue, with his Sheriff praising Sasche and his training with restraint that saved a man’s life. Keeping people safe during emergency situations is the key benefit of training.