Firearms Training: As Close to Real as it Gets

An officer shoots a suspect. What training did that officer have in the use of the weapon, and what was the justification to draw and fire?

by / June 30, 1995
July 95

Level of Govt: Federal, State, Local

Function: Law Enforcement

Situation: Need to train police officers when to draw a weapon.

Solution: Automated firearms training that poses situations and evaluates officer response with firearms.

Jurisdiction: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office; Vermont; Miami; Marion County, Fla.; Federal Protective Service; Vermont Criminal Justice Council; Miami Dade Community College; Hialeah, Fla., Police Department; Hennepin County, Minn., Sheriff's Department; Sacramento, Calif., Police Department;

Vendors: Firearms Training Systems Inc.

By Patrick Joyce

Special to Government Technology

"You take the woman. I've got the man. OK?"

The police officer speaks softly. He is holding a Sig Sauer P226. His partner is clutching an M16 A2. In front of them in the dimly-lit room, a man is asleep on the right side of a bed; a woman is asleep on the left.

"Police," someone shouts, and the room erupts with noise and movement. The man swiftly rolls over the woman, to the left side of the bed.

"I've got the woman now," the officer shouts to his partner. "You take the man."

The man in the bed reaches under the pillow and swings around, a revolver in his hand. The partner fires two bursts or three rounds each, from the M16 and the man rolls to the floor, fatally wounded.

On the other side of the bed the woman cringes on the floor, wailing loudly but unhurt.

"OK, let's see how you did," a voice from the back of the room says. He speaks firmly, calmly, unmoved by the carnage in front of him. He has seen this fatal confrontation before. He is a police training instructor and this is a high-tech lesson in the use of firearms.

Only the officer and his partner are real. The man and woman in bed are actors in a video scenario projected on a movie screen in the front of the classroom. The guns are laser-firing replicas of the real thing.

Now the instructor reruns the video. The same scenario appears but this time, circles on the screen show two "lethal hits" in the suspect's chest. Other circles show two "non-lethal hits" in the arm and two misses.

"It's as close to real life as you can get," said Ron Chavers of Firearms Training Systems Inc., of Suwanee, Ga., manufacturer of FATS. And Chavers knows about "real life" - he's a nine-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office who was shot during the Los Angeles riots.

Cynics might look at such an automated system as simply an expensive video game. Costs rang from $32,000 to a top-of-the-line military unit selling for $5 million. But police training officers across the country praise it as a serious and useful training tool. And, they say, even veteran street cops like it.

"Short of being shot at on the street, this is the most realistic and best training you can have," said R. J. Elrick, a top police training officer in Vermont.

In Miami, firearms expert Ed Preston said that even officers who work high-crime neighborhoods and frequently pull their weapons like to use FATS - to test their ability to deal with worst-case scenarios.

The action on the screen responds to the accuracy of the shots fired from the laser guns. If, for example, the shooter scores a "lethal" hit on a suspect, the actor on the screen falls to the ground and the scenario is over. If the shooter misses or scores a "non-lethal" hit, the scenario "branches" and the suspect runs away or takes cover, and the confrontation continues.

In addition, an instructor at a console can control the scene. "If he believes the trainee's verbal commands have been effective, the instructor can have the suspect give up," Chavers said. "If he thinks the commands aren't effective, he can have the suspect turn and shoot."

The system is designed to test not only marksmanship but also judgment. Trainees watch the scenes unfold on the screen and then try to react properly.

That can be tricky. Some scenarios have identical beginnings and different conclusions. In one episode, a man stands on a sidewalk and tries to coax a six-year-old boy into a parked car. An officer shouts, "Police" as the man walks away. In one version of the incident, the suspect whirls around with a pistol in his hand. In another version, he turns around holding a wallet.

"FATS teaches control of fire, too," Chavers said. "You don't want to put lots of rounds down field where there may be civilians." In one scenario, a man pulls a gun in a crowded shopping mall. In a training session, two officers fire quickly at the on-screen gunman but miss him. The man then runs through a crowd of shoppers and escapes as the officers hold their fire to avoid hitting bystanders.

Some police departments simulate gun battles with role-playing sessions using real police officers rather than actors on video, Chavers said, but that can run up big bills in overtime pay and thins out police coverage by taking officers away from their normal duties.


While police training officers are enthusiastic about computerized firearms training, they feel that lasers will never completely replace the firing range.

Deputy Edward G. Bullock from Marion County, Fla., approaches the subject pragmatically. "You have to combine FATS with live fire." he said. "It will never replace live fire with your own weapon. You have to know if it functions."

Terry Draper of the Federal Protective Service puts it another way: "The firing range is necessary - you need to hear the blast of the weapon."

Still both firearms instructors praise their FATS systems and they say both recruits and veteran police officers like the system.

"It allows a more rounded training." Draper said. "Anyone can get good, eventually, by target practice. But in real life the officer's movement throws off his sight. With FATS you experience the stress, you feel the tingles in your body."

"You have shoot and no-shoot scenarios, said Draper, "you can test your reaction time and you can see if you have tunnel vision" in which concentration on a suspect might cause them to fail to notice innocent bystanders who wander into the line of fire.

"FATS also allows us to track the movement of the officers," Draper said. "We have it set up with simulated cover and concealment for them to use. That's important. We don't want the officer to stand up straight and `John Wayne' it."


In Vermont, the system received high marks not only for its realism but for its size. Police instructors use FATS not only at the police academy in Pittsford but they take the system - which is small enough to fit into a van - to sites throughout the state.

About 150 to 200 officers are using the system each month, both at the academy and at sites around the state., said R. J. Elrick, assistant director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, the agency responsible for training all Vermont's 1,400 state and local police officers.

Officers receive both firearms and patrol training, Elrick said. "We have a 13-week course. The patrol training on FATS begins at 80 hours. The firearms training in week ten or 11. We take the same safety precautions with FATS as we do on the range. When they are competent in the safe handling of the weapon, then we expose them to FATS. Sometimes the live fire on the range comes first, sometimes FATS.

"It's easy to use it for one-on-one training, to do diagnostics of shooting." Elrick said. "On the range we may have one range master and five coaches for ten people. It's hard to pay attention to one person in that situation. With FATS you can. We can watch the shooter's technique and by rerunning the scene on the screen show how well they shot."

"Shooting requires judgment, decision-making and marksmanship," Elrick said. "FATS includes all three."


In Marion County, Fla., firearms training officer Edward G. Bullock uses both the scenarios developed by FATS and a training routine he developed using the system's skill builder disk.

"We use the scenarios for judgment training," he said. "We use five scenarios each time for that. And we have our own 63-round skill-building session. I used the skill builder disk to design it."

Bullock's session presents the officers with a variety of targets, large and small, at varying distances. They must fire from the holster - using real weapons, including shotguns, outfitted with lasers - and score 80 percent.

Despite that challenge, Bullock said, he has had no complaints. "They like it," he said. "I thought we might have resistance but we didn't. I sold it to them from the start as a training tool, not a testing tool."

"We have 450 officers and they use FATS every three months," Bullock said. "We have it going eight hours a day, every day. In two years, we've had only one problem, and that was a minor one."


The police academy at Miami Dade Community College - the largest in the South - has been a pioneer in the field of training simulation, said Ed Preston, coordinator of firearms and defensive tactics.

"We have FATS 1, 2, and 3," Preston said, "and we combine FATS with our driving simulator. We have an officer drive to the scene of a bank robbery in the simulator and then bale out of the car into a FATS scenario."

In his 15 years on the Hialeah Police Department, Preston said he was involved in several shootings and he finds the FATS scenarios compare well to the real thing. So do other officers in South Florida.

"You used to hear that an officer could go through his whole career without drawing his weapon," Preston said. "Not now. Here, our officers pull their weapons probably once a week, in some areas once a night."

hennepin county

High-tech and live fire stand side by side for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department in the Minneapolis area.

"We have an indoor range and a FATS room here," said Deputy Brian Johnson, the departmental firearms instructor. "You have to have live fire for accuracy - you can't simulate that.

"Live fire and FATS go hand in hand," Johnson said. "On the range, the emphasis is on marksmanship. With FATS, it's readiness, using cover and concealment, taking evasive action. They move around the room and we also put them sitting in a chair, as if they're in their car.

"We also use FATS for decision making - on using lethal force, whether they can and whether they should. The officers take it seriously," Johnson said. "Officers with street experience come in and they're nervous and stressed. That's good - they really get involved in the scenario."


In Sacramento, Calif., the City Council approved $102,266 for purchase of FATS-3. in March. One reason for the approval was the soaring rate of shootings involving police - from two a year in the mid-1980s to nearly 20 a year now, said Michael Kerrick, a training officer with the Sacramento Police Department.

Kerrick has used the system and seen its impact on police training. "You can see I'm excited about it, " Kerrick said as he rapidly described the virtues of the system.

"It allows the officer to activate the system and become part of the video scene," he said. "With the weapon connected to a pneumatic tube, it gives you the feeling of the blast of the weapon. You actually feel the recoil.

"When we're training people who have never used firearms, it's difficult to explain felt-recoil. The first time they're on the range, they fire and there's a loud boom and their hand jumps. They're surprised," he said with a grin. "This prepares them."

Novices also have trouble understanding the concept of flinching. "Some trainees overcompensate for that upward pull," Kerrick said. "Then they see the laser on the screen - going in a downward arc, below the target. You don't have to say a word to them. They look at the screen and they say, 'I flinched.' They analyze if themselves. They see what the system is telling them.

"It's relatively easy to teach the mechanics of shooting," Kerrick said. Developing sound judgment is more difficult. "It's not just how, but when you shoot."

Sacramento police have found that real-life shootings occur at close range - frequently at only 10 to 20 feet - and quickly. "From threat to reaction time, there's four-tenths of a second," Kerrick said. FATS, with its combination of "shoot" and "no-shoot" scenarios, offers the experience of making good decisions, as well as firing accurately in that short time span.

Pat Joyce is a freelance writer living in Fair Oaks, Calif.


The heart of FATS is stored in the "Buggy," a container about the size of a large baby buggy. Inside are a computer, a laser disk player, a projector, a hit detect camera, and a student recording unit.

Other key elements of the system are an instructor's console, a screen about seven feet high and nine feet wide, and a variety of laser weapons, ranging from pepper spray and pistols to machine guns. The weapons are either the real thing - with a laser mechanism replacing the firing mechanism - or replicas hooked up by a tube to a CO2 canister. The CO2 simulates the recoil of a real gun.

FATS has produced 40 disks, each with about 30 "scenarios" featuring actors engaged in robberies, kidnappings, drug deals, many other crimes - and suspicious activities that turn out to be legal. The trainees watch the scenes unfold and then try to react properly.

Trainees - police academy recruits and veteran officers receiving in-service training - are supposed to use a "continuum of force" from verbal commands to pepper spray, and finally gunfire.

If the instructor at the console believes a verbal command is effective, he can have the on-screen suspect raise his hands and surrender.

If the commands don't work, the suspect may pull a gun. Then, the trainee fires his laser weapon. The hit recorder camera in the FATS "buggy" senses where the laser strikes the screen and relays the information to the computer.

In addition to participating in gun battles with actors on the screen, trainees can fire at silhouettes and targets similar to those used on conventional firing ranges. With FATS, the shooter not only tests his accuracy but he can also see a vivid picture of his shooting technique. The laser traces bright lines on the screen showing the gun jumping upward from recoil, then coming back on target or - if the shooter overcompensates or "flinches" - dropping below the target.