The Lee County (Ala.) Sheriff's Office enhances realism with new simulation training program.
In law enforcement, it's virtually impossible to replicate a real-life situation through training. But advanced technology, such as high-definition simulators, can help officers sharpen their skills.
That was the plan in Lee County, Ala., when the Sheriff's Office purchased its new simulation program, called Training Lab, which puts deputies in various virtual environments that mimic what might happen in the real world: Speakers erupt with 5.1 Dolby surround sound and, on a projector screen, actors play out scenarios such as traffic stops, domestic disputes, bank robberies and hostage situations.
"This is not a new technology, but the latest systems have taken it to another level as far as capabilities and interaction possibilities," said Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones. "Enhancements make it more realistic."
The high-definition digital video, for example, gives officers a cleaner presentation, even in a low-light environment, according to Joe Mason of the Golden, Colo.-based Ti Training Corp., which developed Training Lab.
"The clarity on the video is so clear," he said, "you can read a license plate if that was part of the training objective."
In addition, the weapons in earlier systems had to be tethered to air tanks, and cables linked the laser device to the computer. Not only is the new system wireless, but laser and recoil kits can be retrofitted so officers can use their weapons in the simulation. And the company, Mason said, plans to deploy 3-D simulation technology later this year.
"If that experience is real enough, the situation in the field may not seem new to them," he said. "There won't be any hesitation because they'll say 'Hey, we've done this before.'"
With 150 preloaded scenarios -- each with two to five different outcomes -- the simulations can progress in various ways depending on an officer's actions. The instructor can also control the scenario from a workstation, escalating the tension with the click of a button by altering the lighting, switching on a fog machine or adding sound effects such as a crying baby or barking dog.
But because real life has limitless outcomes, trainers in the Lee County Sheriff's Office try to zero in on specific skills during the simulations and record them for later review.
"It's very difficult to simulate the real-life situation because there are so many variables," said Dennis Harrell, sergeant of the training division. "We have to target certain areas that we want to control and that we want officers to handle, such as verbal commands."
The software, Mason said, has been utilized by police departments, government agencies and community colleges. In Lee County, which serves a jurisdiction of about 130,000 people, the Sheriff's Office purchased the software last fall for $48,000 with federal grant funding, Jones said.
"To present noncontrolled situations in a controlled environment allows them to stay sharp, enhance their skills and make sure they're following the right procedures," he said. "This will provide officers with techniques and tools to be more efficient and safer in their operation."