Out of My Usual Mode

A couple of weeks ago I posted the following on my Facebook feed:

Holy cow, is my writer’s brain going weird places today.

Consider this scenario which just popped into my head: Imagine that a group of Scottish environmental terrorists take over Trump’s golf resort there. They evacuate all personnel and say that they will bulldoze one hole of the course per day and then destroy the clubhouse/hotel portion itself unless President Trump endorses and supports all International climate change agreements.

The Scottish government opts to wait them out, because no lives but only property is at stake, which position is extremely popular both domestically and internationally. 

President Trump ponders his options from Trump Tower, which means that Fifth Avenue is blocked and can therefore fill with protestors, while Mayor deBlasio secretly sends in a SWAT team to rescue the guy with the nuclear football.

A friend suggests this would be a great Law and Order episode, but I see it more as a Die Hard-style series of movies starring The Rock.

I thought that posting that much would be enough to make it quit rattling around in my head, but it wasn’t, and eventually it turned into this longer piece (which I decided to publish at Medium because it’s so unlike my usual writing):

View story at Medium.com

Update (12/02/2016): I’ve now added an “Other Writing” tab to my home page and posted this story here.

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WPA Redux

 

(Caution: Some photos in this post look graphic, though they are all simulations. None of the blood and gore is real.)

I hadn’t planned on going to WPA again this year. After last year in Appleton, I decided I needed to finish my work-in-progress before I went to any more workshops or conferences. But then my local Sisters-in-Crime chapter, Capitol Crimes, held a raffle in June for a WPA registration, courtesy of its founder and organizer, Lee Lofland, who is also a member. Naturally enough, when to my surprise I won, I decided that the world was telling me I needed to go to Wisconsin this summer.

With my June registration (WPA sign-ups opened in March), I was too late for any of the prior-registration-required workshops, like the hands-on driving and shooting sessions, but there was still plenty to attract my attention. My manuscript is not a police procedural, but it does contain a murder (or two), so I still want to get the law enforcement parts right. And for the next books, I’ll need a bit of fire and EMS information, so WPA had plenty for me in the formal sessions held at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), and unlike last year, I managed to keep my lecture sessions to the mornings and hands-on sessions for the afternoons, so I entirely avoided that after-lunch sleepiness.

Among the highlights:

  • Jerry Johnson’s session on Defense and Arrest Tactics (DAAT) taught me something I didn’t know about the stance that law enforcement officers use in reaction to a physical threat, which I can use in contrast to the stances commonly used by fencers, so that alone made my trip worthwhile.
  • In his Courtroom Testimony workshop, Kevin Rathburn gave a great illustration of how good cross-examination can shred a witness’s original testimony.
  • John Flannery’s Blood Spatter workshop, where he showed us (with appropriate warnings) crime scene photos, and then took us into a homicide scene he’d set up, apparently to demonstrate to us all how much we didn’t notice when we were actively looking for what was important instead of for everything that was there to be seen.
  • Hollie Bauer, who runs the Health Simulator at NWTC, and her crew gave us the opportunity to intubate and bag mannikins, stick IVs into a mannikin arm and into chicken bone (because if you can’t get a vein, you can get meds into the system via bone marrow), and even (with needle and airtube into a nice hunk of meat and a duct-taped balloon) relieve the pressure of a pneumothorax.
  • The man I shall forever think of as TourniquetMan!, Nathan Riehl, completely revised my tourniquet-related first-aid knowledge (tourniquets are essential when the alternative is bleeding out within 3–5 minutes, and one should never loosen them once applied until patient is under proper medical care). We learned to improvise tourniquets with fabric and sticks or scissors, and to apply actual made-for-the-purpose tourniquets, and then got to try out our skills crawling in on an amputated mannikin in Nathan’s trailer full of simulated smoke and loud music. (I’m pretty sure my guy bled out, since I had my tourniquet turned the wrong way round and had a hard time tightening it. But fortunately, the mannikin was only bleeding water, so it wasn’t nearly as messy as it felt.) After everybody had their turn, Nathan cleared out the fog and let us take photos of the mannikin.

Hollie and Nathan turned out to be the ringleaders of what WPA fondly refers to as “announcements,” held each morning before the workshop sessions begin. On Friday morning, we got off our buses from the hotel to see a (Hollie-coordinated, we learned later) head-on collision scene, which eventually included multiple victim actors (including the corpse on the hood, who most of us assumed was a mannikin until his foot eventually twitched), two ambulances, a fire truck, DWI testing, and a life-flight helicopter. And once it was all over—in about 35 minutes, though it felt more like an hour and a half—everybody came back to answer questions about what they were doing and why.

For the Saturday morning announcements, we all traipsed into a lovely semicircular lecture hall (the NWTC facilities were uniformly impressive) for what looked to be a lecture with slides from Nathan on EMS procedure and turned out to be an active-knifer scenario. (He said later they’d originally thought to do an active-shooter simulation, but decided that was too risky with concealed carry being legal in Wisconsin.) His slide presentation was interrupted by shouting and then a man who’d been stabbed in the chest came through the door. Nathan started emergency care and then recruited volunteers and coordinated care for the additional victims as they came in through other doors as the attacker moved through the building. Then came the police, who held us at gunpoint with our hands interlaced on top of our heads until they could clear the room and ensure that the attacker was not among us (or the medical caregivers). Even knowing this was a training simulation, there was an amazing amount of adrenalin at work in that hall. And of course, once Nathan ended the scenario, everybody lined up to show their equipment and take questions.

The Sunday morning panel (“announcement”-free, which is probably a good thing, given how much info we’d already been trying to absorb) was, as was the case last year, another highlight, and a great way to top off the weekend. All of the available workshop presenters and speakers participate, both to answer questions (though unlike last year, the first question wasn’t “I need to blow up a lakeside cabin remotely, so what kind of explosive should I use?”) and reflect generally on the experience. The fabulous Colleen Belongea (a huge hit at last year’s WPA, when she was a full-time Green Bay police officer and part-time instructor, she’s now a full-time NWTC instructor) told us how much she enjoys WPA because of the difficult questions we writers always ask. “You ask questions that make me think. It’s changed the way I teach, the questions I now ask recruits, to make them think.”

 


And for those of you who share my reluctant fascination with the carpet patterns used in public spaces, Green Bay was full of them:

WPA #3: Mind Games & Franz

WPA logoSaturday morning confirmed that my stamina is excellent from all the years I’ve worked as BC chair at USA Fencing national tournaments. Of course, the big difference with WPA, too, is that I’m not responsible for events keeping to schedule, and if I chose, could skip out on the formal program any time I wanted. That kind of freedom still feels odd whenever I travel for non-fencing events.

The morning began with another trip back behind the PSTC buildings to the River City scenario village, where the formidable Colleen Belongea, FVTC criminal justice instructor, and her crew put on a high-speed chase for us, followed—inevitably—by questions until someone decided it was time for the last question before the morning sessions began.

My Saturday sessions were more staid than Friday’s—because I’m interested in how people remember and misremember events, and the psychology of personality and behavior, I went to Robin Burcell’s session on forensic art and witness recall, and after that, Katherine Ramsland’s overview of forensic psychology. After lunch, it was former NYPD detective Marco Conelli’s take on working undercover.

Franz on table

Franz kept an eye on us all, though he wasn’t too thrilled about jumping up onto a wheeled table in the first place.

After all that sitting and listening, though, I decided it was time for a session with a bit more activity: Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy and K9 handler Bob Zill, with his pal Franz, another gorgeous and highly trained German shepherd. Bob told us about the work he does with Franz, about their continuous training process, and of course, answered endless questions until it was time to hit the fire apparatus bay again to see Franz do his stuff. He’s got a lot to show off, too: apprehension and arrest, drug sniffing (he’s an active scent dog, pawing at what he detects instead of sitting quietly), SWAT training, and more.

In addition to his sniffing demo, Franz also showed his apprehension skills, though his “perp” wore just a padded sleeve instead of the full bite suit. Fun facts about K9 apprehensions: almost everyone puts their hands up and surrenders when threatened with the release of a K9, and those who persist and get taken down by a K9 are more excited and impressed than upset.

Then it was onto the buses and back to the hotel for a “Getting It Right” talk from Alison Brennan, and then the WPA banquet and the hilarious Karin Slaughter, followed by the distribution of 300ish silent auction baskets and raffle prizes. (We crime fiction writers are apparently eager to donate to good causes.)

Sunday morning was the big finish–the debriefing panel with all of the available WPA instructors. After brief questions to each of the panelists and lots of thank-you and cheers for everyone involved, Lee Lofland opened up the session for—what else?—questions. One of the early questions started out with “I need to blow up a lakeside cabin remotely from a nearby road . . .” which was the sort of talk that led the hotel staff to state repeatedly that we were “a fascinating group.” As always, the questions kept coming and coming, and only ended when finally one question was designated as the last.

Which leads me to what is the best feature of WPA: It’s not that the attendees are curious and inquisitive and not at all shy about asking anything we want to know, but that the staff was just as interested and enthusiastic and eager to answer our questions. More than a few commented about how our questions made them think about what and how they were teaching, and how they could better convey what they have learned from their own experience.

One small example sticks with me. On the Sunday panel at one point, Colleen Belongea mentioned that looking down to view a driver’s license and registration during a traffic stop was one of the things that would be an automatic fail on a student’s practical exam. An officer needs to maintain constant surveillance of the scene around her because so much can happen so fast. That’s the sort of tidbit that few of us writers knew before she mentioned it. That’s the puzzle that the instructors have to solve—both for us writers and for the future public safety personnel they train—how to figure out what they know as experts in their fields so that they can transmit that knowledge.

So was WPA worth it?

Oh, yeah. No question I’ll be signing up again next year (August 11-14, 2016. Registration opens in January 2016). But next year, I think I’ll aim for more of the hands-on practical sessions to see if I can pick up more of those little details like Colleen’s, not so I can sprinkle my story with accurate factoids throughout, but to help me incorporate them in my characters’ points of view, so that they behave like the real-life models they’ll be invented from.

WPA #2: Lights & Sirens & a Glock

WPA bag logoHopping onto the bus to the PTSC by 7:30 Friday morning felt like a relatively easy start to the day after so many years of getting to fencing tournament venues by 6:30 or 7:00. After the short drive, our four buses disgorged their nearly 300 passengers in front of the Fire Apparatus Bays, which we walked through, past multiple fire trucks and engines, out to get our first view of River City, the collection of streets, buildings, and other interesting sites that FVTC uses for practical training.

FVTC Public Safety Training Center: Rob&Spill station, Boeing 727, derailed train.

FVTC Public Safety Training Center: Rob&Spill station, Boeing 727, derailed train.

FVTC students practicing traffic stops in River City on campus.

FVTC students practicing traffic stops in River City scenario village on campus.

Many of the WPA sessions (crime scene photography, building searches, etc.) were held in various village buildings, frequently put to multiple use—one writer discovered that the smoke-filled room she crept through during a burning building search & rescue session was a perfectly normal looking hotel lobby for her crime scene photography session the next day.

It was back to the fire apparatus bays for my first session, though (I’m considering a building fire for a future book), where Chris Fischer, chair of the fire protection department, showed off both individual firefighter gear and some of his big vehicles, all while answering our endless questions. We learned about Stokes baskets for aerial rescues, why it’s not a good idea to jump off a building with just a rope tied around your waist (married to a physicist, I already knew that), and why firefighters aren’t allowed beards (interferes with good seal of breathing apparatus).

gearing up

Chris Fischer ready to gear up.

full fire gear

Chris in full gear, complete with SCBA unit (just like SCUBA, only without the Underwater part) to make him nearly incomprehensible, which is why firefighters have a whole vocabulary of hand signals. (Also, fire is noisy.)

My clean and shiny ride.

My clean and shiny (and big) ride.

Eventually, someone warned Chris to stop answering our endless questions, and we climbed up into the fire truck (with ladder) or fire engine (no ladder) for our rides through River City with lights and sirens. As I expected, the ride seemed slower from the inside—lights & sirens drives are rarely as much as 10-15 mph over the speed limit, and often slower through heavy traffic. Comfort, of course, is not a priority, though the seats accommodate firefighters in full gear, including their SCBA tanks.

Our session, of course, ran slightly long, so by the time I got there, both the  crime scene to autopsy and the fingerprinting sessions were full, so I ended up in a session on patrol work, where we heard about the “use of force continuum” and the dangers of the “sympathetic grasp reflex” (which essentially translates into “KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNLESS YOU INTEND TO SHOOT THIS INSTANT”).

After a quick lunch, I went to a session on interview and interrogation, which did more to confirm what I already knew than to provide new information.

Me and my perp. (Not bad for my first shooting experience, until you consider this was from 3 yards.)

Me and my perp. (Not bad for my first shooting experience, until you consider this was from 3 yards.)

My second Friday afternoon session was at the firing range, where I’d learn at least a bit about shooting a pistol. We started out in the classroom, where we learned the rules (at least the most important ones, anyway—the instructors told us that regular students put in 8 hours of class work before they are allowed to shoot the way we would). We were fitted with vests and belts, including bright orange plastic fake Glocks, and proceeded into the range, where we learned the basic stance, and how to load and fire our weapons. Then, after collecting ear protection and extra magazines, we traded in our fakes for real Glocks. I was better at it than I’d expected, though by the time we loaded our 2nd magazine, I was trying to pay more attention to my grip and form and my accuracy suffered. But with the distance we shot from, we were practically guaranteed a decent experience—after all, how badly can you miss from three yards under tightly controlled shooting conditions?

Next year, though, I’ll definitely enter the lottery for Milo, the shoot/don’t shoot simulation.

After the shooting experience, Katherine Ramsland‘s session on kids who kill was not exactly soothing, but fascinating in all its creepiness.

Then it was back on the buses, for dinner on our own (which is to say, with any other WPA attendees who happened to be around when we were ready to eat—there were lots of us and we had as much to talk about with each other as questions to ask instructors during the formal sessions. Then after the Sisters in Crime reception, most of us traipsed around the corner and across the street to the police station, where we got to watch Jaco, a lovely German shepherd, demonstrate how much faster he can run than the demo perp in the bite suit. Then, eventually, someone decided the next question had to be the last, only a half hour or so later than planned.

Next: Mind games & Franz