Once upon a time, coherent use-of-force training was only a dream. Most departments had firearms instructors, often working on makeshift outdoor ranges, and usually limited in how they could train by what they could accomplish in a gravel pit or vacant field. Firearms training was pretty much focused on simple qualification.
Officers received training in the laws regarding use of force as they went through the police academy, but little ongoing training in either legal constraints or on use-of-force decision making. Other use-of-force options were limited. There was usually some kind of defensive tactics, or unarmed “combat” training, but little else.
The idea of pulling all of the various use-of-force disciplines together was wishful thinking. Training time was very limited in most departments, and the majority of education that officers received on such topics as street survival, decision making, and encounter management came from working with a senior officer on the street. It was truly an OJT (on the job training) environment.
Ultimately, a natural evolution occurred, wherein officers and departments began to see that additional training was needed if officers were to be safer in their daily dealings with the public. External pressures to improve came from the public, the media, and most forcefully, from the courts. Better, more highly evolved training was the result, along with the advent of various methods for dispensing non-lethal or less than lethal force.
While having additional options in dealing with aggressive behavior held promise, it soon became clear that increased training in each of the evolving techniques and implements would have to be developed.
Eventually, trainers began to acknowledge that there was significant benefit in melding the various use-of-force training disciplines into a coherent whole—a fluid, dynamic environment, where officers would finally be able to train on the one thing that had been so difficult, that being critical decision-making in a use-of-force situation. However, the problem of how and where to do this new training remained. Need gave rise to creativity, and use-of-force simulation systems came into being. Use of Force Simulation Training
As any trainer can tell you, there is training and then there is training. Civilian police trainers have historically worked very hard to assure the safety of their training. This, by virtual definition, kept them from developing training programs that were too “real.”
Think of police training as falling along a linear continuum. At one end of this spectrum is absolute safety, at the other is absolute reality. As police training moves farther along the continuum toward reality, it moves away from safety. For many years, police trainers could only go so far…could only be so “real” without sacrificing safety.
As long as officers were training on a real range, with real firearms, many rigid safety rules were necessary. This kept most police trainers from developing the types of training they knew their officers needed. Ultimately, technology stepped up to provide an answer, the firearms training simulator, which provided a means for conducting firearms, and eventually other use-of-force training.
The technology has evolved so far and so quickly that today the choices available to a use of force manager or other police executive can be overwhelming. Some means to compare the various available simulation systems was called for.
Five of the main providers of simulator technology were reviewed. While a direct, feature by feature comparison is difficult due to the nature of the wide variety of tools and options available, this article will focus on the key features of each company’s offerings in the firearms simulation training field.
Because of the nature of the technology, the approach to certain issues and the application of certain technologies is common across most, if not all of the reviewed providers. A quick overview is in order.
All providers offer systems consisting of a computer, CD and/or DVD drives, a projector (usually the LCD type), a projection screen or screens, a means for modifying weapons and other devices such as OC canisters or flashlights (either yours or those provided by the company) to fire an infrared laser beam at the screen, a “hit camera” for reading the laser hits and sending them to the computer where they are analyzed in a series of software algorithms, and a software package which includes a certain number of pre-installed scenarios for judgmental training, as well as some means for conducting basic marksmanship enhancement training.
Although early simulation systems were sensitive to ambient light, current models from most providers are much less so. In fact, due to the use of infrared lasers, as long as you keep direct sunlight off the screen, laser hit detection should work fine. Of course the brighter the room lights are, the more washed out the projected video will look.
Most providers either offer, or are in the final stages of development, laser equipped OC canisters and TASER™ weapons.
All reviewed providers offer a basic, one-screen system suitable for marksmanship and basic judgmental training. Most providers offer various multi-screen configurations at additional cost. Each of the providers reviewed has based their system on the Windows XP™ operating system. Some have pre-positioned themselves for the next version of Windows.
Each provider has a library of additional scenarios available to their customers. Different pricing structures are in place at each provider. All of the providers reviewed offer a warranty on their systems, with the capability to purchase extended warranties. Most offer an upgrade path, or a trade-in program.
Beyond these common themes, different simulation providers offer varying options and pricing structures. The five simulation technology providers we looked at are Advanced Interactive Systems (AIS PRISim), FATS, IES Interactive Training, Laser Shot, and VirTra Systems.
Founded in 1993, AIS PRISim has law enforcement training simulators deployed in 59 countries around the world, and frequently develops training projects in conjunction with the United States military.
The PRISim line (PRISim stands for Professional Range Instruction Simulator) consists of different models of portable and installed “trainers,” as well as a live fire trainer. Through a strategic partnership with Shooting Ranges International of Las Vegas, this live fire trainer can be installed in a pre-fabricated, modular range. Once the modules are set up, your department will have a secure, indoor range, suitable for both simulator training and traditional live fire courses.
All PRISim models run the same software, so once your instructors are familiar with it, they can easily transition from a portable system to an installed system, if that is your need.
Each AIS system comes preloaded with 115 branching scenarios. Customers then have access to a library of over 1,000 branching scenarios where they can select and pay for only the additional scenarios they want. Scenarios are then distributed on DVD.
AIS offers laser inserts and recoil kits that can be used to modify your department’s weapons for use with their systems. Additionally, they offer both stand-alone and “tethered” weapons, modified by them. The tethered weapons are connected to a compressed air supply, which is either worn on the belt, or is free standing. They also offer “air-munitions”––individual cartridges (weapon specific) which are individually charged with compressed air from a charging station. These will cause training weapons to cycle properly, providing recoil.
AIS has OC canisters and a TASER which use the same infrared laser technology, so that departments can conduct more complete judgmental use of force training, moving beyond the “shoot/don’t shoot” concept that was prevalent in the early days of simulation training.
Since many officers work in low light, AIS provides a low-light training capability. Most scenarios are actually filmed in full light, then the instructor can adjust a “dimmer” switch in the software that lowers the apparent light level in the scenario, in effect turning it into a low-light scenario. AIS provides an optional flashlight that trainees can use during these low-light scenarios.
To add a touch of realism to a simulated encounter, AIS also offers an optional “shootback cannon” which can be controlled by the instructor. This can be used to fire plastic balls at the trainee, should they stray from behind their cover during the scenario. Because feedback is such a valuable learning tool, an optional “shootback” video camera can also be added, which will record the trainee as he goes through the scenario.
Many agencies will want to develop their own scenarios. AIS provides an optional software package that can be used to make this possible. While it is far easier to utilize the preconfigured scenarios from the AIS library, often there will be a desire to have scenes filmed in a local environment. While this will require some work on the part of your agency, the added realism can make it worthwhile.
AIS does not certify firearms or use-of-force instructors. If a department purchases an installed system, the AIS install team will conduct training on system setup and operation as part of the purchase package. For portable systems, the same training is available at additional cost. AIS also offers a two-day Instructor Development Course for an additional fee. This course will train your instructors on how to conduct simulation training, and how to plan training scenarios.
AIS provides a toll free number with 24/7 technical support. Usually a call to the support number will connect to a real, live person. Sometimes, after hours calls will go to a pager system, and a technician will call you back. A strong emphasis is placed on technical support, and AIS aims for the callback “lag” to be minimal, with the stated goal of no more than a one-hour wait. They also plan to add a troubleshooting guide and FAQ section to their Web site.
AIS is actively seeking closer integration with their strategic training partners, as well as other equipment providers, such as TASER International. Their involvement with Shooting Ranges International has yielded a valuable solution for those departments struggling with trying to set up a range facility, while at the same time desiring to move into the simulation training arena.
Additionally, AIS is involved in a joint venture with a major supplier of law enforcement driving simulators, to develop an integrated simulation training environment that will closely link the two most dangerous and litigious aspects of high-risk police activity, motor vehicle operations and use of force.
Originally known widely as Fire Arms Training Systems, FATS has been in the simulation training business for 22 years. Because of their longevity, they have the largest installed base of systems, with more than 5,000 units in the field, approximately half of which are overseas. While FATS still provides a significant number of units to the civilian law enforcement market, about 85% of their revenue is now generated through their military contracts.
While many of their customers still have older units in use, the FATS Law Enforcement Training System is actually operating on version 10 of their software. A department or academy that has used FATS for a number of years would probably be surprised at the advances they’ve made. Infrared lasers are the order of the day, and they’ve adopted wireless technology. However, their system is still fairly sensitive to ambient light, and will work better in a dim room.
While FATS systems run larger than many of the offerings of other providers, they do have smaller portable units in place with the military right now, and they should be available to the law enforcement market within the next year. The primary FATS system utilizes a single projection screen, but they have multiple screen capabilities.
Right now a multi-screen setup requires six separate computers, one for each screen. Within the next three to six months, FATS will have the capability to run their multi-screen system from a single computer, thus keeping costs down and providing for enhanced simplicity of operation.
FATS systems are configured on an individual basis as to the number and variety of weapons offered. They have both system controlled or tethered weapons (the familiar “hoses running to the air tank” version), and stand-alone weapons, which utilize laser inserts. Of course the tethered weapons are modified and supplied by FATS, but the laser inserts will fit into your department’s guns.
FATS is also marketing a system called Bluefire™, which is a Bluetooth enabled weapon system. Bluefire is a modified weapon that fires a laser at the screen and utilizes a special modified magazine which is charged with compressed air. This facilitates recoil, similar to that made possible with a tethered weapon. Bluefire communicates with the FATS system computer through a Bluetooth link.
In effect, a Bluefire weapon behaves like a tethered weapon, without the tether. All capabilities such as “trace” mode and muzzle tracking are possible with Bluefire, as well. Bluefire is not available for all weapons, but the line is being expanded. A Bluefire OC unit is available now, and a TASER will be coming soon.
For low-light training, FATS films some scenarios as low-light and some in full light. The system operator can “dim” the light level in many of the full light scenarios, in order to create a low-light training environment. FATS can provide an optional modified flashlight, and will be introducing a series of lenses in the next few months that departments can use to adapt their own flashlights. In this way, officers will be able to use their own lights, always a plus.
FATS scenarios are provided on DVD, and each system purchased gives the buyer the right to select two DVDs from the FATS library. Other DVDs are available for purchase. Typically, a FATS DVD contains 10 to 15 scenarios, depending on the number of branches in each.
FATS systems also come preinstalled with “lanes training,” FATS’ name for marksmanship enhancement training. Some preconfigured skill builder courses are installed, and the operator can customize or design others. This is particularly useful when working with “problem shooters.” The FATS system offers optional shootback cannons and shootback video systems, as well as an optional package for producing your own scenarios.
FATS includes a five-day training program with each purchase. The program includes information on system setup and troubleshooting, system operation, and courseware usage. Advanced training is available at additional cost.
Technical support is provided via a toll free number on a 24/7 basis. Occasionally, those calling after hours will have to leave a message and wait for a call back, but FATS emphasizes a speedy response from their technicians. Recently, FATS began adding troubleshooting guides and FAQ information to their Web site.
IES Interactive Training
IES has been in the simulation training business for 10 years, starting in 1995. Currently they have over 600 systems deployed, with about 200 in overseas locations. Although they do work with the military, they only provide their law enforcement product to military police organizations. They have not ventured into the simulation of military hardware.
IES is perhaps best known for the Rangemaster 2000™ and Rangemaster 3000™ models that are in wide use. Neither model is currently in production. The next generation of IES simulation trainer is known as MILO™. MILO doesn’t stand for anything, it’s just a name IES chose.
The MILO system is really more than a firearms simulator; it’s a learning platform, capable of delivering many other types of training as well as firearms and use-of-force simulation. We’ll have to limit this review to the firearms/use of force arena, but those considering purchase of a simulator, and anticipating a budget battle along the way, should consider the fact that the MILO system might be an easier “sell” to the budget folks, considering it can be used for so much more than police use-of-force training.
A MILO system consists of a “cube” type computer, a projector with screen, hit detection capability, packing/shipping containers, and two included laser inserts. Additionally, IES includes extras that most other vendors don’t. For example, the MILO system comes with a SureFire™ 6p flashlight for low-light training, a stationary shootback cannon, a laser equipped OC canister, and a small video camera for filming your own scenarios. A laser equipped TASER (built by TASER International for IES) is optional.
MILO comes with 200 preinstalled scenarios, and customers have free access to over 400 more in the IES library. Approximately 90% of the scenarios are branching, and all are available at no additional charge, via DVD. This, in effect, means that purchasers of the MILO system receive 600 included scenarios.
MILO does not require a dimmed out room, although sunlight will affect it, due to the fact that IES, like most other providers, uses infrared laser, and sunlight contains infrared. As previously mentioned, too much ambient light will wash out the video quality on the screen. MILO is a single screen unit, and the system is very portable, requiring about 30 minutes to set up.
All scenarios are filmed in full light, with low-light training facilitated through a “dimmer” slider in the software, allowing the instructor to control the lighting level in any scenario. Although IES provides a SureFire light with a special lens, they also make available (as an option) similar lenses that can be used by a department so officers can use their own lights. This keeps costs down, and officers will be more comfortable training with their own lights.
There are preconfigured skill builder courses included on the MILO hard drive, and IES can provide an optional software add-on that will enable instructors to design their own marksmanship enhancement drills, including importing your department’s particular qualification target for use in the drills.
For weapons, IES can provide modified Glock™ or Sig-Sauer™ pistols. Primarily, though, IES provides laser inserts for your weapons.
Recoil kits are available, and are tethered to a compressed air reservoir worn in a belt pack. One unique feature of the way IES manages weapons is that laser inserts are coded, so once they are placed into a weapon, the system software can be configured to “read” that laser as any weapon.
Here’s how it works operationally: you insert a laser into the barrel of your weapon (different collars or adapters are used to match the insert to the chamber size). In the MILO software you assign that laser to a particular weapon type. When you do that, the system assigns the correct number of shots for that weapon.
Additionally, although the sound produced is the same for all handguns, if the assignment is for something like a Pepperball™ gun or a shotgun, the system sound will match that weapon type, as will the “pattern” that shows on the screen. In effect, you could put your laser into a 15-shot Sig Sauer™ pistol, and tell the system that you are firing a 12-shot Smith & Wesson™ pistol, and the system would treat that weapon like a Smith & Wesson.
While this “cross-assignment” capability might not be especially useful during routine training, one time when it might be helpful is if you have a limited number of weapons available for training, but want to train officers on different magazine loads.
Recoil kits are available, and are tethered to a belt pack worn by the shooter. You modify your department’s guns by replacing the barrel, and inserting the recoil kit’s “magazine” in place of yours. A shootback video unit is optional.
IES includes a five-day Certified MILO Range Instructor course in the purchase price, with other advanced courses available at additional cost. Technical support is provided through a toll free number with 24/7 availability. After hours calls receive a quick call back, and the IES Web site has a troubleshooting guide and FAQ page available at their Web site.
IES is currently working with a major manufacturer of police driving simulators to produce a near seamless solution to the training problems presented by the interface of two high-risk law enforcement activities, use-of-force and pursuit.
Laser Shot actually began in 1999, providing hunter education training systems, and still does—with contracts in 42 states. The Laser Shot law enforcement endeavor got started in 2001, with the primary focus on providing affordable systems to small agencies Although that remains a source of pride to the company, they now have over 500 systems deployed, and have delivered many units to larger agencies as well, including the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Laser Shot also provides units to overseas police agencies, and has some military trainers deployed.
The core of the Laser Shot law enforcement product line is the LE-Pro. Along with the expected computer, projector and screen, the LE-Pro comes with one laser insert and one “dry-fire” weapon that is primarily used for system diagnostics. The system is designed to be portable, and takes about a half hour to set up. It works well in the average lit room, but is affected by sunlight. The basic unit is a one-screen model, but options can expand the system to five screens.
Each system comes preloaded with 90 scenarios, 20 branching, and 70 “straight” or non-branching. Other scenarios are available for purchase on CD from a library of over 300 additional simulations.
Approximately half of the available scenarios are of the branching type. Each system includes 10 preconfigured “skill builder” courses, and instructors can configure their own courses as well.
Live fire capability is available through the purchase of an optional kit. However, the live fire option actually costs more than the LE-Pro itself. Other options include a shootback cannon and shootback video capability. Instructors can create their own scenarios with an optional add-on kit.
Laser Shot does not sell modified weapons. Departments are provided with laser inserts, and recoil kits are available. The recoil kits are tethered to either a belt pack worn by the shooter, or to the system itself. Laser Shot does not provide training as part of the purchase package. A one-day instructor/operator course is available at additional cost. Technical support is available through a toll free number, and there is a troubleshooting guide/FAQ available on the Laser Shot Web site.
Laser Shot has emphasized affordability, deciding to focus on the core issue of simulation training, and making items available as options where many of the other vendors include the same options in their basic system price.
VirTra got their start in the virtual amusement ride business around 11 years ago, and began applying their technology to the law enforcement and military fields 2 ½ years ago. Being the “new kid on the block,” VirTra has few systems deployed around the world (approximately 41 as of this writing), but is moving forward into the market quickly.
VirTra specializes in multiple screen systems, with their basic system being the IVR-180. IVR stands for Immersive Virtual Reality. They can provide a single screen model for those agencies that have limited space, but much of the benefit of the VirTra system is potentially lost when the system is downsized so much. The IVR-180 can be packed away, and set up in about an hour.
In its typical configuration, the VirTra system utilizes a “surround” environment, with a potential for 360 degree involvement. VirTra uses rear projection, which avoids shadows caused by people and objects getting between the projectors and screens. While this causes the system to take up more space, it offers some intriguing possibilities. One that fascinates me is the capability to set the system up in a large garage and pull a patrol unit right into the simulator itself. Trainers will immediately see the benefit and creative possibilities in this.
All filming of scenarios is done in a 360 degree format, and the VirTra computer is programmed for how many screens are to be used. While this is a more complicated process, the system handles it well.
VirTra includes 200 branching scenarios pre-loaded on the system. An interesting feature is that, during the warranty period, customers receive an included subscription which gets them a monthly DVD containing 5-15 new branching scenarios. After the warranty period, they can purchase continuing access to the library for an additional fee. Of course, your instructors can make their own scenarios with an optional add-on package.
As with other systems, the VirTra system is sensitive to sunlight, but can be used in a lit room. And, because VirTra uses a very high-speed hit camera, up to 20 shooters can train on each screen, utilizing fully automatic weapons. Although this has limited application for basic civilian law enforcement, it is useful for small unit tactics training in the military and in the SWAT environment.
The VirTra system includes skill builder modules for marksmanship enhancement, and instructors can configure their own, as well. Most scenarios are filmed in full light, with low-light training being facilitated by the now familiar “dimmer” control in the software. There are a few scenarios actually filmed in low-light. Virtra can provide a flashlight utilizing an infrared pass-through filter, or can provide your department with lenses so your officers can use their own lights.
Weapons are completely wireless adaptations of your department weapons. This is accomplished through the use of a programmable laser insert and a recoil kit which utilizes a small rechargeable compressed air tank inside each weapon’s magazine. The magazines have the heft and feel of real magazines, and are mil-spec tested with a 5-foot drop onto a concrete floor. There are no tethers. The VirTra system can be set up on a range, and utilized in live fire mode.
One unique feature of the VirTra system is the way they handle the “shootback cannon” option. A standard cannon is available, but they also offer an optional Threatfire™ belt. This is a belt that fits around the waist of the shooter, and upon being hit with a shootback signal from the system, gives the wearer a small shot of electricity. The jolt will pass through up to four layers of clothing, and at its lowest setting feels like getting snapped with a rubber band.
Virtra includes a one-day Train the Trainer course with each purchase. This training will equip your instructors to train your other instructors. Technical support is provided through a toll free number, 24/7. While there are no troubleshooting guides or FAQs available on the VirTra systems Web site, VirTra makes every effort to always have a real, live person answer the tech support line, even after hours. VirTra is the only provider reviewed here that includes a high-end computer workstation desk and chair in their package.
Each of the providers reviewed for this article offers viable, vital, technologically advanced products. The advancements in this field are impressive, considering where we were just five or 10 years ago. Having engaged in extensive discussions with each vendor, and having had the opportunity to look at their offerings “up close and personal,” I’m comfortable in saying that virtually every provider has more technology on the drawing table, ready to be released over the next few months.
Simulation training is an exciting arena for development. It’s a chance for the traditional needs of law enforcement to meet creative solutions through innovative application of emerging technologies.
Much can be accomplished through the use of simulation technology. It is very useful for honing and enhancing the skills of shooters, and for helping to troubleshoot issues that may be keeping those shooters from excelling in the motor skill arena that is police use of firearms. It’s also very useful in setting up situations that force officers to think, make decisions based upon their training, and then act appropriately.
Following scenario completion, the inclusion of a component that requires those same officers to justify their actions, either verbally or by completing a practice “report,” can only help in showing officers the importance of being able to appropriately articulate their reasons for acting the way they did. Trainers should consider adding this component if they haven’t already done so.
The trap is that law enforcement trainers will try to make the technology do too much. Simulation training is just that…a simulation. It’s no substitute for actually getting out onto the range and firing live rounds, or engaging in role plays involving defensive tactics and verbal management skills, or giving and taking hits from non-lethal weapons like OC, TASERS and batons.
We can squeeze every utility out of simulation training technology, but we can’t limit our officer’s training to just the technology environment. Officer safety and survival training needs to reach further into the real world; the world of interaction with the actual tools and implements used by police on a daily basis, and interaction with other real people—unpredictable as they may be.
If law enforcement trainers keep these needs in mind, then the products reviewed here are an extremely valuable addition to any department’s efforts. If not, they become very high- priced video games.
Steve Ashley is a retired police officer and former full time risk management professional, specializing in police liability and officer safety issues. He can be reached through his Web site at www.sashley.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.