It was an unusual opportunity. Inside a small banquet room at a suburban Chicago hotel, the makers of some of the leading law enforcement use-of-force simulators had set up their products and were running scenarios. The demonstration was part of a day-and-a-half-long seminar taught by Randy Revling of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College at the recent International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association conference. The audience was police trainers who were attentively learning how to get the most out of their agencies' sims.
One of the first things you realize when you get a chance to view state-of-the-art law enforcement sims side by side is that regardless of manufacturer, they are pretty similar. One reason that their differences are now so subtle is that the quality of simulators is no longer a matter of who has the best computer. In general, they all have about the same processing capability.
Sure, some of them are faster and more powerful than others. But buying a use-of-force simulator based on the processor is like buying a car based on only one factor: its top speed. You really need to know the size of the car, the feel of its seats, and its features and amenities before you can make an educated buying decision. Features are also the name of the game with LE sims.
When you buy most LE sims, you are going to get a state-of-the-art Windows computer with keyboard and mouse, software, training scenarios, a projector, a screen, speakers, laser inserts for converting double-action pistols into training guns, and a digital video camera for capturing trainee reactions to the scenarios. This package varies based on manufacturer and price of the sim that you purchase, but this is basically what you need to start training your officers. The greatest differences between the different models and makes of sims are the features and options that they offer.
Odds are that many of you reading this article have invested in a 16x9 high-definition TV for your den or media room. Americans are getting very used to watching football and prime time shows in HD. High-def video has also arrived in the law enforcement sim market.
The benefits of HD in a use-of-force sim are pretty easy to understand. "The clarity of the picture is a lot better," says Vince Greiner of Meggitt Defense Systems (parent company of FATS). "That means that it's easier for a student to determine if a perpetrator has a cell phone or a knife in his hands."
HD is now standard on a number of FATS sims and also on competitive models from IES Interactive Training, Ti Training, and AIS PRISim. But the buyer should realize that there is HD and there is HD.
If you buy an HD TV and play standard DVD discs on it, the picture is going to look really good. If you play HD DVD through an HD DVD player on an HD TV, then the picture is going to be amazing. Unfortunately, HD DVD players and the discs that you feed into them are quite pricey.
The primary determining factor of HD quality in a law enforcement sim is the projector; think of it in the same way as you would that pricey HD DVD player. To get the best picture, you need an HD projector, and that's not an inexpensive piece of equipment.
Some sim companies such as IES have decided to include HD projectors in their HD packages. Some others do not. When comparing prices on HD sims, make sure that you know the capability of the projector that you are buying.
Beyond video clarity, the primary factor for achieving greater realism in a training sim is the sound quality. Most manufacturers now offer enhanced multispeaker sound systems.
Both IES and Ti Training now offer 5.1 surround sound standard in their flagship systems. Ti Training's Joe Mason says the primary benefit of surround sound is that it gives the trainer the ability to present students with distracting and realistic noises from all directions.
"Let's say you want a dog barking in the scenario," Mason says. "With our system, you can move that sound effect to any part of the room with just a click of the mouse."
Aim and Fire
Some sim companies have also focused their attention on making the "firearms" used with training sims more realistic. This generally involves adding recoil to training weapons.
There are several ways to add recoil to training weapons used in law enforcement sims. The most common is to attach a belt pack to the student that contains a C02 canister. A coil runs from the canister to the magazine of the pistol and, when the student squeezes off a round, the C02 pumps through the weapon and racks the slide, producing significant recoil, although not as much as a +P police cartridge. Some companies also make weapons with special mags that can be fitted with a C02 canister inside the mag.
By far the most innovative training weapons are available for the FATS sims. FATS' Bluefire system gives control of the weapon to the instructor by connecting it to the computer via Bluetooth. This means that the instructor can make the weapon jam or limit the number of rounds available to the student. Recoil is provided by air pumped into the weapons from a proprietary system called a Fill Station. The process takes two seconds to fill a mag with air from a standard scuba tank. You get 30 to 50 shots per fill.
Even FATS competitors say Bluefire is really cool. But it does have its downside. While most other sim makers allow you to convert your own weapons to training weapons, Bluefire weapons have to be purchased from FATS.
Some trainers raise the question of whether recoil is really needed in the weapons used with training sims. Others like recoil. But even Robert McCue of IES says that recoil is not necessary for a quality use-of-force training session. "Dry fire without recoil is OK in most cases because you're not trying to teach shooting in a use-of-force simulator. That should be taught on the range," he explains.
If you walk up and "play" a scenario on almost any law enforcement sim at any law enforcement trade show, you're being sold the sizzle. It's a lot of fun to pick up a training gun and run a scenario or even plink at pepper popper targets on the screen. But law enforcement training sims are not supposed to be video games; they are supposed to be training tools.
The meat of any law enforcement sim is the features that enhance the training value of the system and make it easier for the user to achieve training objectives for his or her students. As such, some of the most exciting innovations in the current generation of sims are designed to make life easier for the instructor.
For example, the most interesting development in the latest IES systems is a relatively inexpensive option that allows the instructor to run the system using a handheld device.
"Typically, one of the problems with simulators was that you had to dedicate an instructor to sit behind the machine to make mouse clicks, push buttons, and follow along on the monitor," says IES' McCue.
IES' new technology allows the instructor to get up and move around the training environment. "We realized that an instructor's place is out where the trainees are. We call it the 'untethered instructor.' We couldn't have done that a few years ago because the technology for making such a wireless connection was very expensive. Now, at a very low cost, we can provide this as an option on all of our systems."
IES and other companies have also focused on creating tools for instructors to use in debriefing. Not only do most sims now allow trainers and trainees to view both the scenario and the student's reaction to it using picture-in-a-picture technology, they also allow the trainers to project PowerPoint presentations and word documents to explain agency policy, points of law, and other pertinent information.
"The real learning takes place in the debrief," says Ti Training's Mason. "So we've put a lot of features into our debrief. You can go frame by frame in the video, so you can see the exact moment that the threat began and how the trainee reacted to it. We even have a slider bar so that you can advance to any position in the video during your debrief."
Mason believes that it's critical for law enforcement officers to get used to having their actions captured on video and their performance judged accordingly. "There are so many cameras out there now watching the officers," he says. "You've always got the neighbor who has the video cam running, and we want to get them used to having cameras on them like they will in the real world."
Make Your Own Scenarios
Perhaps the greatest innovation in current law enforcement simulators is that they now allow trainers to make their own scenarios. This is a capability that is in its infancy, but it will soon be one of the most important law enforcement training tools.
To make your own interactive training scenario, you kind of have to tap your inner Spielberg and think like a movie director. Step one is to determine the training objective, then you have to write a script, then you storyboard, then you determine all the props and cast that you need, and finally you go on location and shoot a digital video. This video is edited into an interactive training scenario using tools provided by the sim company.
Obviously, making your own scenarios is a time-consuming and complex process, but some agencies are doing it.
"We are finding that more and more agencies have someone who is literate in creating multimedia," says IES' McCue. "And many of them are realizing the benefits of making their own scenarios."
One of the benefits is creating even more realism for the students by incorporating local scenery into the scenarios. "If you really honestly believe that you are going to film your own scenarios, then by all means pay for that capability," says AIS' Tim Bollig. "When you have scenarios that are filmed in your backyard and your officers can recognize the streets, that's a very good thing. Unfortunately, not everybody who buys scenario authoring capability uses it."
The process of creating your own scenarios may now be beyond the ability of some agencies who don't have personnel with the computer skills necessary, but it will soon be much more common. The tools are getting easier to use, and the number of officers capable of using them is growing as the Xbox generation joins the ranks.
Bollig says that all of the tools now being incorporated into law enforcement simulators are part of the continuing transformation of the systems from firearms simulators to use-of-force simulators. "The sky is the limit for these systems," he says. "We're trying to replicate a real-life situation. Out in the street, you don't know which way it's going to go. That's what the technology is allowing us to replicate more and more into these simulators."
Portable Use-of-Force Simulator Companies
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