It is not about the shot you just took, and it’s not about the shot you’re about to take. It’s what’s going on inside you that will make you a good shooter.
training study, Virtual Training Systems and Survival Humanistic Factors, went inside the human body to study how the survival response is activated, analysis of stress hormones, and impact of physiological and psychological responses.
As training technology has developed over time, the use of virtual simulators has been designed by private manufacturers to provide more realistic training and to cover a broader range of use-of-force options. This approach accepts that mastering specific skills is a crucial component of any training regime, but the ability to apply those skills appropriately under stressful (i.e., sub-optimal) conditions is viewed as equally critical.
Modern computerized use-of-force virtual simulators expose police officers to highly realistic and interactive scenarios whereby they can learn appropriate responses using the full range of use-of-force options available. Combined with other forms of training, simulators have allowed officers to master use-of-force skills. The focus is on teaching police officers the appropriate application of these skills under field-compatible stressful conditions. Officers are immersed into scenarios by creating a learning and practice environment, which forces the officer to make decisions under stress in order to transfer skills learned earlier. Lethal Force Encounters
The use of lethal force in policing is a critical high-profile topic and occurs in dynamic stressful situations. Prior research has shown that an officer engaged in a lethal force encounter 1) has little reaction time to deliberate on the shooting; 2) experiences numerous physiological and psychological responses; and 3) will frequently experience perceptual distortions impairing performance and memory. Given the critical importance of officer field performance under stress, the need and importance of realistic training, and given the miniscule amount of research with virtual simulators on human factors and the police use of force, Meggitt undertook the following research.
The purpose of this study was to use a use-of-force simulator technology in experimental research to determine if a virtual environment could produce stress on respondents that would trigger measurable physiological and psychological responses and changes.
This paper specifically reports on 150 respondent veteran police officers’ perceptions, misperceptions and physiological responses when confronting a lethal force scenario in a virtual simulation environment. The research moves beyond the principle that virtual simulators just provide effective learning. The research demonstrates how the technology was used to perform human factors research in lethal force confrontations. The Meggitt Research
When I was Academy Director with the Kansas City, Kans. Police Department we bought a FATS systems. I asked the sales representative, “Could you give me all of the data, all the information that validates this system does, in fact, cause stress and that we are, in fact, spending the taxpayers’ dollars on the “state-of-the-art reality-based training.”
The response in 1997 was, “No, we can’t do it. We have anecdotal evidence. We know that officers go through it, their hands shake, they get cotton mouth and body tremors, and that type reaction,” but we have no studies, no evidence, nothing to take into court to defend you or your agency on negligent training issues.
Fast forward to 2007 and the problem still existed. There’s never been a scientific study to validate that virtual reality training actually does induce combat stress. It is not just stress. What we were chasing is the stress that you experience during an actual shooting situation, during an actual combat situation. We were looking at the reaction of the sympathetic nervous system, SNS. I
n 2007, Meggitt Training Systems commissioned a review of their existing Law Enforcement product line. It became quite apparent that the virtual training industry had yet to address the question of reality-based training or the “humanistic factors” that both police officers face today. Review of Literature
The following 11 months were dedicated to the literature review of prior studies as well as exploring new research technologies. During the literature review it became apparent that if this was to be a truly scientific study, then an Institutional Review Board (IRB) from a well known university would be needed. The University of South Florida, a well known university in the field of Medicine, Criminology and Psychology agreed to oversee the IRB.
Dr. Kristen Salomon, a neuropsychoimmuniologist; Dr. Maureen Groer, a neuropsychoimmuniologist; and Dr. Darrell Ross, chair of the Department of Law Enforcement at Western Illinois University were hired to assist in developing a protocol for the research as well as research questions.
Many questions were to be answered by the research. First, can stress be induced in a virtual environment? Second, can a virtual environment induce an activation of the Sympathetic Nervous Systems (SNS)? Third, can external stimuli increase the SNS? Fourth, does the participants’ ability to use the weapons sighting system deteriorate with SNS activation? Fifth, is memory or perception or misperceptions affected with the activation of the SNS?
In an effort to test the above questions, several issues needed to be addressed. First, how will we determine the activation on the SNS? In order to gain an understanding of the cardio aspect of the officer while in the lab, a new state-of-the-art wireless eight-channel, multi-modality encoder was used, providing real-time, computerized data acquisition, viewable EKG, RMS EMG, skin conductance, heart rate, blood volume pulse, respiration and HRV. Second, how can bio-marker samples be collected from the officers without drawing blood (a procedure that in itself can cause stress)? Dr. Groer determined that several bio-markers should be present in the saliva and thus taken by salivary samples throughout the testing.
There are many bio-markers identified as “stress hormones.” Alpha Amylase is an enzyme in saliva that changes with acute stress and is related to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is a proinflammatory cytokine in saliva and blood associated with inflammatory process, such as atherosclerosis, and is increased by stress hormones.
Secretory Immunoglobin A (sIgA) is the major protective antibody in mucosal secretions such as saliva that is known to be increased by acute stress and decreased by chronic stress. Cortisol is a hormone in saliva that is related to the free cortisol in plasma and is a measure of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Cortex stress axis.
The third question involves the external activation of the SNS. The military and various private training organizations use hyper realism as a method to emersion. As the soldier goes through the scenario, there are explosions and IED impact, images of injured soldiers and other mass causalities. There is no question this approach works well, but will it work as well for those soldiers who are on their third or fourth deployment who have seen and experienced all this first hand? New and Different Approach
The Meggitt Study chose a different approach. Using a paper by Dr. Paul Whitesell, Superintendent of the Indiana State Police, titled “The Psychology of Intimidation,” an external devise was designed to replicate your primal fears. Within the paper, Whitesell spells out what your primal fears are; those fears you’re hard-wired to have regardless of age or gender. If you’re human you were born with these fears.
The first of which is the fear of loss of physical support—the fear of falling or drowning. Next is a fear of noxicities of nature, which means things that crawl and things that swoop. One is hard-wired to fear those things. You have the fear of sudden impact or touch, meaning that if as a child you went to turn off the switch in the room, you would jump from the light switch to the bed because you were afraid something would reach out from under the bed and get you. We all have those fears. The Meggitt approach was to replicate those human fears during a virtual environment scenario, to reach inside the officer and activate those primal fears, thus activating his or her sympathetic nervous system. Therefore, it will not matter if one is a rookie or a 15-year veteran.
The external stimuli designed, developed and patent pending is an overhead system mounted from the ceiling of the lab supporting Vortex cannons, lights, clangers, 240-watt second power strobe lights and 5.1 surround sound. So, the officers are overwhelmed with sound, overwhelmed with lights, and hit with Vortex cannons during various stages of the scenario to replicate sudden impact or touch, or to replicate the loss of balance, things being thrown at the officer.
The last question was: Does the participant’s ability to use his weapon sighting systems deteriorate during the SNS? This is a 70-year-old question among range masters as to whether or not we use our sights. We all know, those of us who have been in shootouts, that we didn’t, but there is nobody on the department willing to take the witness stand and say, “Nah, we don’t teach them how to use their sights.” So, there was an obvious need to scientifically prove, for once, whether we do or do not use our weapon’s sights. It was evident that in order to capture this data a $25,000 pair of Mobile Eye tracking glasses was necessary. The Mobile Eye goes beyond normal tracking and records both what the officer observes as well as the audio responses. A key feature is the cursor overlay for eye tracking, showing crosshairs, thus proving or disproving the ability of the officer to use the sights of the weapon during high-stress situations.
The results of the Mobile Eye recordings are telling. If the threat is within 17 yards or less, the officer does not use the weapon sights. In other words, if the sights are smaller than the threat, the sights are not used. If the sights are larger than the threat, then it appears that the sights may be used. It’s all point shooting or instinctive shooting, whatever your department wants to call it. The Laboratory Testing
Various degrees of simulator intensity were tested to reveal varying degrees of identified stress by the participating law enforcement officers. A lab was constructed housing a new stress induction system. The lab was about 20 feet by 18 feet and scenarios were shown on a white wall approximately 16 feet wide by 10 feet high. To test these hypotheses, the author developed and used preliminary data collected from the experimental design using differing degrees of external stimuli introduced during the scenario. The randomization of the scenarios was to have three scenarios. Motorcycle Scenario
This was Group 1 and involved 52 of the 150 participants, assigned randomly. The duration of the scenario was approximately two minutes and involved a traffic stop of a person on a motorcycle. The driver dismounts from the cycle, squares off next to the bike, and confronts the officer verbally. Within a few seconds the driver reaches over the bike with his right hand, grabs a firearm, and brings it around quickly, firing at the officer. Workplace Violence Scenario
This was Group 2 and involved 73 of the 150 participants, again, randomly assigned. Officers are dispatched via a real-time dispatcher using handheld radios to an office building and informed by a security officer that a gunman is inside the building. The officer searches the building for the suspect. The officer makes contact with employees in offices and in the hallways. The officer observes a person standing facing him from approximately 25 feet. The subject observes the officer and flees farther into the building.
The officer approaches the location where the subject fled and observes a male on the floor bleeding. The officer continues to pursue the subject and makes contact with an employee who directs him down another hallway. The officer observes the subject push a female to the floor who begins screaming, and the subject continues to flee. The subject opens a back door of the building, runs into the street, attempts to hijack a vehicle, continues to run into a wooded area, and turns and fires a handgun at the officer.
Two back-up officers arrive, one toward the back of the subject (about 15 feet) and the other officer arrives at a right oblique angle to the subject’s position. These position alignments place the subject in the middle of the pursuing officer and one back-up officer, as he fires at the back-up officer. The scenario duration is about five minutes.
High-intensity stressors were used, which included: several blasts of air (vortex cannons) directed at the officer, shoot back cannon of pellets directed at the officer, a phone book thrown at the officer by an employee; changes from moderate lighting in the building to extreme sunlight leaving the building; as the officer exits the building, a truck passes close by with a loud horn honking with a blast of air from the vortex cannons; distracting sounds of a beating heart rhythm with sound increasing throughout the scenario; and pellets were fired at the officer during appropriate times to simulate hostile fire.
Group 3 was the Workplace Violence with No Added Stressors. This involved 25 randomly assigned participants. It was the same scenario as explained for group two, without the infusion of high-intensity stressors. Dependent Variables (Additive Scale)
Did the officer experience: Difficulty in thinking; in moving; in speaking; in hearing; in vision; in breathing; in hand-eye coordination; fear; concern for safety; a need to apprehend the subject; dry mouth; nausea; sweating; fast heart rate; being caught off guard, responded automatically; did not react fast enough; responded pursuant to training to policy to agency; responded to his or her experience; responded based on actions of subject; was the task demanding; how stressful was the task; was he or she able to cope; how threatening was the task.
All participants were provided with a police uniform shirt, a radio and a Blue Fire® Glock simulator weapon with the officer’s department gun belt system. Officers were dispatched to the call using two-way radios and their agency’s 10-code system. All respondents were fitted with eye-tracking glasses and biomedical / physiological equipment to track physiological data. From time of arrival to departure, participants were on site for about 1.5 hours per respondent.
Demographic data on the 150 participants was tabulated using frequency distributions and selected descriptive statistics on the officer’s age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, education, agency type and agency size. As well as descriptive summaries of the individual variables, both parametric and non-parametric statistical procedures assisted the authors in testing the two hypotheses. Demographic Findings
Veteran officers from three county sheriff departments and five municipal police departments located in the Tampa, Fla. area comprised the 150 participants. Over 93 percent of the departments employed from 151 to over 500 officers. Of these officers, 81 percent were male, 75 percent were Caucasian, and they had at least three years of experience in law enforcement. Over 87 percent had either taken college courses, possessed a college degree or a graduate degree.
There are limitations to this study. The researchers did use randomization of assigning respondents to a particular scenario but did not have control over the background, experience and training of the officer who voluntarily participated. The scenarios were designed from actual field incidents but were shown in a lab using the simulation system and complete replication of the field incident in a research environment was therefore not fully achievable. Stressors Experienced
Using an “Analysis of Variance” the combined (additive) scores on 14 areas of perceived stressors were compared. A scale score of 0 to 14 was assigned to each participant based on their self report of experiencing any one of the 14 common areas of stress asked of the participants just after completing the scenarios. These areas of stress included: difficulty in thinking, moving, speaking or hearing; problems with vision, breathing, hand-eye coordination, dry mouth, nausea, sweating or fast heart rate; and perceptions of fear, concern for safety or need to apprehend the subject. Participant’s average scores were compared across all three scenarios revealing a statistically significant difference in combined perceptions of stress.
Participants in the motorcycle scenario experienced less than two areas of perceived stress on average. This was compared with three items of stress identified by those completing the workplace scenario without stressors. Higher still was the workplace scenario with stressors, with participants indicating an average of four areas of perceived stress immediately after the scenario.
The between group differences in combined stress were statistically significantly different from any within group variation caused by the way participants were randomly assigned. The chance of sampling error explaining these group differences in stress is less than one chance in 1,000.
Statistically significant differences were especially large when compared between the motorcycle scenario and the workplace-with-stressors experience. Group 2 (workplace scenario—regular with stressors) revealed both graphically and statistically to elicit the strongest levels of perceived stress.
Alpha Amylase levels were statistically higher from baseline at 10 minutes and remained high in both groups. Cortisol rose significantly at 10 and 30 minutes in Group 1, but remained unchanged in Group 2. IL-6 rose at the 10 and 30 minutes only in Group 1. While SIgA rose at 10 minutes and then dropped at 30 minutes in both groups.
The stress activation of the HPA did not occur in the motorcycle scenario, yet alpha amylase levels suggest the sympathetic nervous system response occurred in both. IL-6 rose over time in the workplace scenario, and was variably in the motorcycle scenario. The SIgA elevation occurred in both groups at 10 minutes but returned to baseline at 30 minutes. The IgA and amylase correlations suggest that perhaps the IgA response is mediated through the sympathetic nervous system.
These data show the utility and time courses of four biomarkers of the stress response. The data also provide new information on the dynamics and physiology of salivary biomarker response to different stressful stimuli. The data does support that the stress response does occur in virtual reality training. Conclusion
This assessment is preliminary but yields some early interesting results. In a time where realistic police training is advocated by educators, police practitioners, private vendors and the courts, this brief overview clearly shows the use of firearm simulators can indeed produce stressors replicating field encounters requiring a lethal force response.
Participant officers overwhelmingly reported that the scenarios of workplace with stress impacted their concerns for actually needing to apprehend the suspect, perceived their heart rates increased, and the scenarios were demanding. Moreover, officers’ perceptions indicated a strong concern for their own safety, induced appropriate and realistic stressors, and the activities experienced were actually threatening.
A significant percentage (25 percent) of respondents experienced a level of fear during the scenario. Additional assessments of the physiological variables will be performed to further cross-check these perceptions.
Based on participant perceptions, each of the two hypotheses was rejected at a very robust statistical confidence level. These responses demonstrate that a simulation system combined with several stress inoculation components can replicate field conditions worthy of designing future training scenarios. Such training designs will enhance a soldier / officer’s ability to transfer trained judgment and firearms skills from the classroom and the firing range, to actual field encounters.
Therefore, simulator training should not replace other types of judgmental / firearms training but should be an added component to all survival skills training soldiers / officers receive. Exposure to simulator scenarios combined with stress inoculation components should be provided to officers on a regular basis.
This paper has reported on the preliminary findings and only a portion of the total research project. Further analysis of the enormous amount of the remaining data is needed before strong conclusions can be made. Early analysis is promising in that we are learning more about a soldier / officer’s performance under stress when confronted with a lethal force situation.
Singularly, the findings underscore the fact that simulators provide an effective method to research and assess human performance under stress. Findings of the research can also be useful in designing ongoing training to further enhance soldier / officer skills, decision making and performance. The findings provide a better understanding of the nature of stress soldiers / officers encounter when confronting a threatening situation. Major (Retired) Randall L. Murphy is the Director of Research, Meggitt Training Systems Inc. He has participated in law enforcement seminars throughout the United States instructing officers, commanders, agency administrators, military personnel and the attorneys representing such agencies. Major Murphy is the past president of the Kansas Criminal Justice Professors Association and college professor for 18 years. His law enforcement experience includes service as a police officer with the Kansas City, Kans. Police Department from 1972 to 2002.