Can custom table-top models help officers to be better prepared to respond to area incidents?

(VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.) -- To the tidewater division of the National Model Rail Roaders Association, building model cities with accurate settings was just part of the fun of working with model trains.

When the Virginia Beach Police Department saw the precision and detail displayed in the realistic scenarios, they had a more practical agenda in mind. They wanted to create table top modules to use for incident management training.

''We saw the railroad club as a resource,'' said Capt. Woodrow W. Baker Jr., who is in charge of professional development and training for the police department. ''That could help us meet our goal to acquire a table top simulator. They could help us to build a neighborhood that closely resembled Virginia Beach rather than some generic city that we could buy.''

John Fallon, a member of the railroaders club knew that what the police needed, his club could do, and inexpensively, unlike the companies that charge $ 30,000 to $ 60,000 for the service.

Nationwide there are about 50 model cities that have been sold to federal agencies for training purposes, Baker said.

However, no one locally has purchased one yet because of the price.

''The companies that construct the models charge dearly for the labor,'' Fallon said. ''They don't do it for fun like we do.''

Sharon Prescott, another club member who was involved with the project, said she was excited the club members who enjoyed model making could contribute to the community in such a positive way and at the same time promote the hobby of model railroading, which is a great family activity.

The training opportunities using the modules offer officers firsthand experience in critical situations like a plane crash, hurricane, flooding, fires and complex criminal situations.

''We wanted our officers to have the practical experience in a controlled situation,'' Baker said. ''If a mistake was made, we wanted it to happen in practice, not on the street.''

Baker felt table top simulators would give officers knowledge that was not available through two dimensional traditional methods like city street maps.

''If we had a crime scene in a neighborhood,'' Baker said. ''Officers could see where water, electric, and gas lines were located. They could visualize a route for emergency vehicles to the hospital and keep it clear. They know where a command post should be established. It's all right there in front of them on the table, and they can make adjustments as new information is received.''

The table top simulations are scaled down sections of communities complete with houses, out buildings, shrubs, people and vehicles that provide a practical area of training without actually intruding into private space.

Right now the Virginia Beach police have a neighborhood scenario that is approximately 8 feet by 16 feet and modeled after an area in Oceana.

To make the simulation as realistic as possible, some of the members from the model railroad club who helped to construct the first two modules went out to the neighborhood to get a feel for it.

Then Baker had photos taken of different houses so that a lot of the construction on the table top simulation matched real houses, Fallon said.

''I was railroaded into helping the police with the project,'' Fallon laughed. ''But it was fun and interesting to show them how to get the module down to scale-to teach them modeling techniques, give them hints on materials and supplies and keep the price down.''

The first two modules, which are 4 feet by 8 feet each and interchangeable, took about three months to build, Fallon said.

He worked on it two days a week with John Hammond and Sharon and Steve Prescott, who all belong to the local club. They were joined by police Explorers, a division of the Boy Scouts of America, Donnell Watkins, Marc Grizzard, Sharnell Cook and Jason Long, who did the work as part of their Explorer requirement of community service.

''This model helps us see a neighborhood and helps us to know where and how to place people,'' Grizzard said.

Watkins added, ''I learned a lot by working on this. I think it was a great idea, particularly if it helps the police officers to better their training.''

Master Police Officer Jeff Jensen, who worked on the project with the Explorers, was skeptical at first because he wasn't sure what the finished product would look like. Now that the first of the three scenarios is complete, the other two are a school and a business module, he admits that he is thrilled with the results.

''These models are something to help the officers think - picture it in their heads,'' Jensen said. ''It gives them a different way to think about the problem. When they go into a real situation, they either have to rely on their own training or someone else's. This helps build a data base in their brains.''

''When our police officers can go through this training, which will probably start in December, they will not only have hands on experience, they will sharpen their critical decision making process,'' Baker said. ''Their actions will be recorded and critiqued. They will learn if they made the best decision with the information they had.''

With the new simulators ready to be used for training purposes, there are a lot of happy people - the police, the Explorers, and especially the members of the model railroading club.

''It's great when people in the model railroading community do community oriented projects,'' said Norm Garner, mid-eastern regional president. ''This gives us good exposure to the community about our hobby.

(iSyndicate; The Virginian-Pilot; Nov. 5, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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