For police officers in Ulster County, N.Y., training on a firearms training simulator (FATS) is a major step up from pelting one another with paintballs and wax balls.

To an observer, FATS might look like a giant video game. A trainee shoots a realistic-looking gun at a 15-foot by 8-foot screen, which projects a re-enactment of a potentially hazardous scenario, such as a knife-wielding man.

FATS isn't only a great tool to teach cops how to handle a crisis situation; it's also a good way to educate the public about the split-second decisions required of law enforcement. Ulster County police use the newly purchased simulator to teach cops and citizens the landmines involved in police work.

Realistic Weaponry

When training on the simulator, an officer packs a real Glock 17 pistol converted to fire carbon dioxide cartridges. The gun kicks as if it were shooting real bullets. The officer is given 10 feet of floor space to seek cover, move into firing position or cover a target on the large screen.

A video scenario - one of hundreds an officer might face on patrol - is projected on the FATS screen. All the scenarios were adapted from real-life situations reported by U.S. law enforcement and then re-enacted on video by actors.

A man brandishing a knife, a husband and wife arguing or a routine traffic stop play out on the screen as the officer handles each situation. Any or all of them could turn into a crisis situation for the cop.

"You can have a scenario where the officer pulls over a driver and the instructor can choose between different scenarios, like whether he's going to be a threat target or not a threat target," said Lt. Egidio Tinti of the Kingston Police Department in Ulster County. "You can have the officer repeat the same scenario, but with a different ending."

Ulster Community College acquired the training simulator in fall 2007 from Meggitt Defense Systems for $67,000, via a grant obtained by state Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope. FATS is used by an emergency services team, a county special weapons and tactics team, two police academies, the newly founded citizens' police academy and the Ulster Community College Department of Justice.

"It gives you exposure without risking your life," said James Truitt, assistant professor and coordinator of Ulster County Community College's Criminal Justice Department. "It helps provide distress inoculation - when you're in a stressful position you'll have the skill level to handle it."

Hundreds of Scenarios

The simulator records data about the scenario, including the training officer's reactions, voice commands, bullet tracers and where the officer's gun muzzle was pointing at all times. The information allows the trainer to play back the video and discuss what the trainee did right and wrong.

The simulator allows firearms training in an atmosphere where life and limb aren't on the line. Teaching proper gun handling is difficult to do on a range when shooting with paper targets. With the simulator, the trainer can show trainees what they are doing wrong instead of just telling them.

"We'd been using force-on-force means [paintball guns] in the past, but this is excellent," Tinti said. "It's safe, it's clean and you can play it back and show them where they're hitting, where they're aiming, whether they're cognizant of the fact that they're not behind cover. It provides a lot of different avenues."

There are two components of the system: a firearms training component, which teaches basic stance, grip of the gun, etc.; and a decision-making component.

"Jerking the trigger, anticipating recoil - you won't see that on a range very well," Truitt said. "And you can't argue with the playback. They can see exactly

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor