The Polk County Sheriff’s office spends considerable time training officers. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday the department added a tool to improve that training. Imagine a room with a wall size video screen. Like a videogame on steroids, videotaped actors move through scenarios, responding or not to a live trainee’s commands and weapon fire.
You’re a deputy with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. You’ve standing in front of a mini-van as a father explains why he has pulled to the side of the road. He’s upset, but attempting to explain his predicament. A teen sits fidgeting in the front seat. Younger children in the back seat are yelling at the teen. You’re watching inside the van as you glance back at the father. His hands are down at his side, palms open and facing you. The children are agitated. You start to step toward the minivan’s passenger side as the teen opens the door. You shout for him to stay seated. He continues opening the door.
You see his hand come up. Is that a smile? Is he angry? Does he have a gun? You have less time than it takes to read this sentence to decide. Decide while his father is yelling. Decide while children are jumping in the back seat. Decide while the teen continues out of the car.
One-third of a second has passed. You take too long to decide. You’re shot and killed.
In the facility, officers use standard weapons and tools outfitted with sensors instead of bullets. Cameras track officers as they work through real-life, real-time scenarios. Instructors use interactive media to alter the scenarios to respond to the skill level of the trainee. After the training scene is over, instructors can replay the video and show officers where they did well, and where they could improve.
Running though a scenario quickly starts to feel real. The actors fall when shot. They shoot back when they’re missed or only wounded. Trainees don’t feel the return shots, but the video turns red if the officer would have been killed.
Lieutenant Rick Wright is the training supervisor at PCSO Burnham McCall Training Center, “We are the first in this area to bring this simulated training to use.”
Wright points out how little an officer know when responding to a call. They know the location and a very brief description such as “shooting” or domestic disturbance. “Deputies don’t really know what they’re getting into,” Wright says. He says the department uses the video facility to train officers to make informed situation-based decisions.
Scenarios are about two minutes long with branching options that allow a single scenario to have various outcomes. The videos are guided. An officer can’t choose to open a door or not. Though some scenarios seem to start slow, action happens lightening quick.
Trainer Sgt Larry Traylor, points out that the methods is realistic. “In these scenarios, we’re training action and reaction all at real-life speed.” Wright says the scenarios are short for a good reason, “We’re focusing on the decision-making process.”
In addition to the realistic training, Wright finds the system cost effective, “It was half the cost of most simulators on the market.” He added that the department will see significant savings, “A case of 1000 rounds (of ammunition) is approximated $260. A case of the CO2 cartridges (to power the training weapons) is $340.“ A quick bit of math, and Wright figured the Sherriff’s Office gets around 45,000 rounds out of that CO2 case.
Wright says the training isn’t only for new officers. Veteran deputies spend time in the facility. “You can never get enough training,” says Wright. He expanded on the cost effective aspect of the facility, “We need just one instructor in here versus seven in an old-fashion simulation training. Weather is also a big factor. We can now operate during inclement weather.”
Lt, Rick Wright prepares to fire as Sgt. Larry Traylor manages the training scenario.
That’s because of the interactive nature of the training facility. An instructor sits at a computer behind the trainee. He watches and listens and can alter the direction of the scenario based on the responses of the trainee. If the deputy uses the proper language to handle an explosive situation, the instructor can show the video actor calming down. Improperly handle the scene, and the actor gets belligerent and the situation escalates.
Wright explains that they focus on two major training procedures: analytic and intuitive. Classrooms are big on giving analytic training – ask the right questions and learn the right answers. “We train the intuitive thought process through this training,” Wright says of the facility, “It paints a cognitive map in the deputy’s mind. In the field the deputy now has an idea in his mind what he should do.”
The training facility has proved very popular with the deputies. “I haven’t heard one negative comment. Once they start they don’t want to stop,” Wright said.
With over 150 scenarios, each with numerous branching options, the facility offers something new each time a trainee use it. If one were to run through each scenario, Wright is prepared, “We automatically receive video updates at no cost.”
The department can also build scenarios using Polk County locations and actors. Using simple built-in tools, Sheriff’s Office video is imported, potential targets are identified, and branching options programmed. Wright says they have already constructed a simple scenario of the department shooting range.
Training isn’t all video and shooting though. Instructors can display department policies, case law, constitutional amendments, and outside video and photos to help a deputy understand the particulars of a scenario.
One aspect of the training that Wright highlights is the video of the trainee during training. An unobtrusive camera records the trainee and the screen. After the scenario, the instructor can show the trainee where he or she performed well or missed an important clue.
“We’re trying to teach them to see beyond the obvious. You get that thorough experience and that is what this (facility) does,” says Wright.
The department’s training isn’t the cutting edge of the technology. The next step is 3D to allow a trainee to step into the middle of scenarios. It adds another level of realism to the training, “It is just like me and you looking at each other,“ Sgt Traylor says. He did the yeoman’s work to find the present system and has studied the new 3D equipment. He pointed out that the department’s current system can be easily upgraded when the 3D projector is released from the manufacturer.
Lt. Wright can’t wait, “3D is going to open a plethora of training opportunities.”