Law enforcement training simulators have evolved in the last decade to feature multiple screens for a more immersive experience, 4K HD video for more visual realism, and a variety of sophisticated firearm replicas that feel like and even behave like real guns. This has given agencies that use these tools an opportunity for very high-end training. But leading subject matter experts at some of the nation's largest makers of computer-based training simulators say the component that is critical to achieving real value from their products is not the machine, it's the person running the training.
Experts say that far too often they still see examples of agencies that are using their sims to evaluate their officers' performance rather than train them. Robert McCue, general manager of MILO Range Training Systems, says the reason that so many agencies haven't changed their mindset about simulator training is they don't understand the power of the latest systems. "Older simulators used to just test your ability to do certain tasks. These can actually teach you how to do certain things properly," he explains. And he is quick to add that the key to achieving that training value is a qualified instructor who knows how to get the most out of the training. "You can have a not so good simulator system and a great instructor and get a lot more out of the training than if you have a great system and a poor instructor," he says.
Good simulator instructors need to know the machine they are running. But that's just the bare minimum of knowledge they should bring to the students. They also need to know the agency policy, the law, and law enforcement methodology and tactics.
Knowing the machine and the scenario being worked is extremely important to the process, says Nathan Friddle, a Meggitt (FATS) law enforcement sales representative and veteran law enforcement trainer. "If the instructor is not prepared, obviously the student will not get the greatest value from the time they are spending," Friddle says.
Friddle believes one of the goals of the well-prepared simulator instructor is to provide a training environment where the student can suspend disbelief and be immersed in the scenario. He says it's very important for instructors to have intimate knowledge of the scenarios they are using so that the branching will be as seamless as possible. "If the officer I am training is waiting for me to make a move with the simulator, that obviously takes the officer out of the immersive environment of the simulator."
To make the training more real, Friddle recommends that instructors include real-world elements in the simulator environment. He gives the following examples: have a CPR dummy so the officer can secure the suspect and render aid after a shooting, have the officer virtually wounded in the scenario and need to put a tourniquet on an injured limb, have the officer make simulated radio calls from the scene, and even bring in role players for handcuffing.
A qualified and knowledgeable instructor is essential to the actual working of the scenario, but his or her most critical role is the debrief of the student after the scenario. "The instructor's job is to use this tool to transfer knowledge to the student and without a good debriefing that knowledge is not exchanged," says McCue.
Lon Bartel, senior subject matter expert for VirTra, says many instructors do not know the best way to handle the debrief. "Most of the instructors I have seen over the last 20-plus years follow the same method," he says. "The student finishes up with the test and then they tell the student what they did right and what they did wrong. That's about performance, not learning.
The experts interviewed for this article say a better way to handle the debrief is to have the student answer questions from the instructor. Bartel says VirTra teaches its customers the following four question debriefing plan.
1. What information did you have going in?
2. What did you see and what did you hear?
3. What did you do and why?
4. If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently and why?
Of these four questions, perhaps the most important thing the instructor needs to discuss with the student is why they did something or would do something. Bartel says sometimes students take a justified action for the wrong reason and they need a refresher in law and policy. "I don't want somebody to be lucky, I want them to be right," he says.
A valuable part of the debrief can be requiring the student to fill out a report on what happened, says Friddle. "If you are focusing on a specific policy or a specific case law, reporting can be useful, as it teaches the students how to articulate that policy or that case law," he adds.
Bartel says VirTra customers should think about their training simulators as "more than just force option simulators." He explains that the sims can be used to teach legal principles, agency policies, pre-force behaviors of the officer and suspect, officer safety, and even gunfight tactics such as cover and movement. "We can talk about all these things in the debrief," he says, "but only if we're using this tool the right way."
McCue adds that a good instructor needs to be able to teach students how to correct mistakes in the debrief. "The simulator is a place where the student can make mistakes in a safe learning environment," he says. "The instructor needs to be able to recognize those mistakes and teach the student what to do instead before the mistakes become habits out in the field."
In addition to making the simulators themselves, all of the companies contacted for this article provide a variety of services, training, and tools that instructors can use to enhance the agency's return on investment in the machine.
Agencies that purchase the simulators receive instruction in how to set it up, how to use it, and how to train it. Buyers of MILO Range systems even receive a block of instruction titled: "You Have a Simulator. Now What Do You Do With It?" Another block of instruction MILO offers to its customer, according to McCue, is "How to be a Good Instructor Using a Computer-Based Simulator."
One of the most popular debrief tools is a camera that captures the actions of the student while they work the scenarios. "The video from Meggitt's Lookback camera is very important for the debrief," says Friddle. "Sometimes students don't realize what they did, and the Lookback shows it to them."
Similar video systems to the Meggitt Lookback are featured in products from MILO Range and VirTra. MILO Range has a camera that captures the student's performance, and it offers a body camera-type device that the student wears while running the scenario. VirTra has a picture-in-picture feature that lets the instructor show the student the scenario video and the student's reaction to it on the same screen.
Another way that computer-based simulator makers aid instructors in their training mission is by providing detailed educational materials as part of their system's software or as support material.
MILO Range offers the KnowledgeBase, which is essentially a multimedia encyclopedia. McCue says MILO Range customers can access a wide variety of materials from the KnowledgeBase, including video, PowerPoint presentations, documents, and photos for lessons, and they can project them on the system's screens for the students. In addition, the agency's policies can be incorporated into the KnowledgeBase. "Let's say a trainee uses OC spray improperly in a simulation. If that happens, then the instructor can bring up the KnowledgeBase for policy and how to use that tool properly," McCue says.
VirTra offers an instructor support system called Virtual Instructor (VI). "After we produce each scenario we create an instructor asset," Bartel explains. VI walks the instructor through the scenario, detailing the tactical principles, legal principles, pre-force indicators, and behavior threat cues involved.
VI is designed to complement VirTra's new law enforcement training curriculum V-VICTA (VirTra-Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy), which was announced last year. V-VICTA meets the standards of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) and is nationally certified for POST.
VirTra has released several courses in the V-VICTA line, and last month it announced its latest, "High-Risk Vehicle Stops." Bartel says, "We launched V-VICTA last fall after years of researching the science of training and assimilating the expertise of our strategic partners and the collective experience of our subject matter experts. 'High-Risk Vehicle Stops' is the latest addition to this certified curriculum, which we believe not only provides the best possible training to law enforcement, but does so in an intuitive and user-friendly manner."
The "High-Risk Vehicle Stops" V-VICTA curriculum includes seven new scenarios, and instructor materials for using them. "One of these scenarios has many different ways the event could take place," Bartel says. He adds that the scenario is so complex because VirTra films "each actor independently." Such a scenario could be difficult for instructors to work with, but Bartel says Virtual Instructor helps the instructors. "You can sit down and watch Virtual Instructor and see all the ways you can use that scenario," he says.
McCue says MILO Range's training materials and instructor support features are part of a transition in the industry from marketing its products based on technology to stressing content. "The technology supplied by companies in this market has leveled out quite a bit. What differentiates us now is the strength of our scenarios and the features provided that help instructors effectively teach their lessons."