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