Los Angeles Police Department Hydra System Promotes Simulation Training for Command-Level Officers

LAPD opens sophisticated training suite that simulates critical incidents.

by / October 4, 2010
The Los Angeles Police Department brought a specialized simulation system, Hydra, from the United Kingdom to aid command-level officer training. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department

Bringing a training system that’s named after a seven-headed beast from Greek lore to America from the UK is an unusual way to procure software — but that’s exactly what happened. A few years ago, former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Bill Bratton participated in a Hydra exercise in London’s New Scotland Yard, and he returned stateside enamored with the system.

The immersive simulation training suite uses video and audio feeds to monitor real-time decision-making during critical incident drills, and also can be utilized for operational and investigative training. The exercises are designed to simulate the range of responses that might be required of a law enforcement officer during natural disasters, counterterrorism operations and large-scale investigations. After three and a half years of training and development, the LAPD’s Hydra system went live in March with a simulated bomb threat from a terrorist unit. The LAPD also is using the system to continue training for high-level officers.

“It fills a training gap for our command-level officers,” said Sgt. Timothy Kalkus, the LAPD’s officer in charge of Hydra operations, “because what we have found not only in Great Britain but also in the United States is that training for police officers, sergeants and lieutenants is quite robust — we send them to training updates and so forth — but then when you make captain, essentially your training is curtailed quite a bit because your duties and responsibilities increase.”

Hydra’s methodology mixes technology and interaction among decision-makers, according to Jonathan Crego, the system’s designer and the director of Hydra operations for London’s Metropolitan Police Service. He designed the system in response to England’s 1985 Bradford City Fire Disaster, where a flash fire that broke out during a soccer match killed 56 people and injured 265 others. “A public inquiry looked at the way we train strategic police decision-making,” Crego said. “And that was the basis in which I designed the whole concept.”

Incident Simulation

During Hydra simulations, trainees are divided into Incident Management Teams that are housed in different breakout rooms. The teams are monitored via closed-circuit television and boundary microphones. By recording everything that occurs, it allows observers to participate in and learn from the training, and precisely documents the teams’ actions.

The LAPD’s setup for the system consists of six rooms: a control room that runs the events and houses the stations of communications and subject-matter experts; a plenary room that acts as the debriefing center; three syndicate rooms that are the breakout centers for the Incident Management Teams and contain a Hydra computer, conference table and whiteboards; and a role-playing room.

Law enforcement leaders control the exercise and feed trainees a stream of information, which can consist of newscasts, intelligence briefings, and police and fire radio traffic. “It’s all very immersive,” Kalkus said. “They get all this intelligence thrown at them, and then we will send them a task to work on.”  

For example, he said, the law enforcement leaders could tell trainees to conduct a risk analysis of five events that will occur in the city over the next week and determine where the city should put resources. Or the talk could be something more sophisticated, Kalkus said. “Like, ‘This is an unfolding event right now. We want you to write an operational order that covers all the planning aspects, from intelligence and logistics to resources and funding.’”

Participants enter their decisions and rationale into the system, where they are saved and used during debriefings in the plenary room. The subject-matter experts monitor the live action in each room via the audio and video feeds.

Once everyone is brought into the plenary room for debriefing, the Incident Management Teams’ decisions are discussed, which allows participants to learn about the decision-making process and each team’s response to the same situation.

The role-playing room can be used in a variety of ways to make the exercise feel closer to real life. Role-plays can include press briefings, and meetings with victims’ families, community forums. An exercise earlier this year tasked participants with notifying the department’s chief of staff on operation plans. “The briefing was captured on live video and fed into the plenary room for the other delegates to observe,” Kalkus said. “The learning is thereby extended to all participating members in real time.”

An important objective of the simulations is collaborating with other agencies and partners. During the LAPD’s first Hydra exercise, the FBI and members of the Police Commission, a civilian organization that functions as the department’s board of directors, were included in the event. And during a counterterrorism exercise in June, a Muslim and a Jewish community leader participated in the training.

“The technology allows us to immerse the teams into the scenario and provides them with the stress that they would feel in the field,” Kalkus said, “but it’s the way that we break that training down throughout the day and have them talk in an open and frank environment about our deficiencies, as well as strengths that really leads the training.”

Each exercise is unique because the participants are different, which allows the department to test policies, procedures, tactics and strategies. He said it stirs up “water-cooler conversations” that let the department’s officers and officials identify and discuss best practices.

Worldwide Training

Although Los Angeles is the first U.S. city to operate a Hydra system, 60 centers operate in Europe and Canada. Australia and Ireland each have one, according to Crego, who said he thinks it’s been slow to spread to the U.S. because it’s difficult to describe and takes time, space and training.

The first Hydra system, built for the Metropolitan Police Service in London, went live in 1993, Crego said, and has since evolved from using computer-controlled tape decks to real-time video monitoring. “In the early days, just getting video on computers was full of wonder,” he said. “And then we recognized that putting together a multiroom computer simulation was the real difference between Hydra and computer gaming.”

He said the 1983 movie WarGames — in which a mischievous boy hacked into a government computer and accidentally engaged with live agencies in a nuclear weapons control system — is a closer approximation of what Hydra is than traditional computer gaming, which uses set algorithms and solutions.

The LAPD’s setup cost about $500,000, which included the hardware, infrastructure improvements to the existing facility and a $1 licensing fee for the Hydra software. According to the LAPD, funding for the project was arranged by the Los Angeles Police Foundation with major contributions from Target Corp. and the Annenberg Foundation. Kalkus said the system doesn’t require specialized hardware — the software is what makes it unique. Off-the-shelf PCs, projectors and video equipment are used, which makes it easy to customize a Hydra environment.

Crego said he sold the LAPD the licensing fee for $1 because of the current credit crunch and to force the department into a research collaboration with all the other Hydra centers. The LAPD’s Hydra center links to the others, which makes multicenter exercises possible.

“I truly believe it’s going to be a sea change for command staff training in the U.S. law enforcement community,” Kalkus said, “and you’ll see it develop over the next five to 10 years, where the LAPD, [New York Police Department] and Chicago PD — all the major police departments — are going to have Hydra suites that can connect together and run a national exercise.”


Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

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