Why Simulators Are Only As Good As The Trainers That Operate Them
By John Wills
Thankfully, judgmental use of force simulators are becoming ubiquitous in the law enforcement and military communities. Having been in law enforcement for 33 years, I can remember the days when the best we could do to conduct scenario training was to have one or two staff members function as role players. Several officers would then be given a brief as to what the situation involved; next, the officers had to pretend that it was real, use red handle revolvers, and make “bang, bang” sounds to simulate gunfire. You know what came next—the argument as to who shot whom and where. Debriefs may or may not have occurred.
We’ve come a long way since those days. We finally graduated to forceon- force training, using lasers, paintball, and simunitions. That was a huge leap, but force on force still lacked several things: enough time, enough role players, consistency and quality of scenarios, and venues to conduct the training and debriefing. Furthermore, bringing all of those elements together was a huge task in and of itself.
Enter the training simulators. Simulators have changed the complexion of judgmental training. Giving FATS their due, they revolutionized this genre beginning in 1984. They were the first to offer this innovative training, and I for one was extremely excited about this new manner of instruction. For years FATS dominated the field and delivered quality training that filled a tremendous void. Was it perfect? No, but being first at anything is never easy. Now there are a number of companies that are competing for a share of that market: Advanced Interactive Systems (AIS), Laser Shot, IES, to name a few. Each has its own pros and cons, but each brings an element to the training table that will make a significant difference between those that utilize simulators, and those that don’t. AIS and Shooting Ranges International have even teamed up to give police departments and military the ability to conduct this training in a live-fire environment, utilizing the officers’ own weapon.
The courts have recognized the value of this type of training, as evidenced in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 US1, 1985. This decision resulted in court issued guidelines for when an officer can use deadly force. Now that we have a roadmap, how do we ensure that we teach our officers to understand and follow it? Of course we first utilize the classroom—but then how do we reinforce that learning? We do it by using the simulator itself.
After the legal instructors define your department’s use of force policy and deliver the classroom training, the next logical step is the practical application of that learning. As every trainer knows, unless we actually allow the students to have hands-on experience/practice, that lesson is never fully absorbed. It’s one thing to listen to a lecture on use of force, but quite another to apply that knowledge when the officer is involved in a situation that involves speed, stress, confusion, and threats. Simulators allow us to expose our officers to real-life situations that are consistently reproducible for each person. Why is consistency good? Consistency allows us to evaluate each officer exactly the same, by having them each go through the identical situation. We then identify common themes and/or deficiencies that can either be addressed immediately, or at a later training session.
Furthermore, the simulators allow us, as instructors, to view how our officers are likely to react in a critical situation. More importantly, simulator training allows officers to evaluate themselves— emotionally, physically, and honestly. They can ask themselves—do I have the necessary skills and abilities to survive a deadly force situation? Depending on the system utilized, other training can be incorporated, i.e. marksmanship with handguns and shoulder weapons, low-light training, etc. Moreover, this training eliminates most safety concerns, especially accidental discharges.
Just because a department or agency has a simulator, doesn’t mean everything instantly improves. Depending on the system purchased, you may lack certain options or tools that prevent you from having the ability to train your force the way you would like to. Perhaps your budget constraints caused you to get a “bare bones system” that proves to be not much better than a commercial video game. Or worse yet, you get a system that lacks stamina, is down more often than it is operational, or maybe has content that just isn’t germane to what your department does on a daily basis. Merely having a simulator is not a panacea, it must be tailored to the needs of your agency or department, and your instructor cadre must be trained to utilize the system to achieve optimal results.
It’s not a common practice, yet I have seen the following transpire: instructors will use a system as their own punishment tool. How does this occur? Instructors will set a student up for failure by giving them a “no win” situation. The purpose of this exercise is to cause that student to be humiliated. Another misuse of simulators occurs when the system is equipped with a shootback device. This allows the instructor to target a student, even though that student might be tactically sound, so that the student gets shot by the bad guy on screen. These two types of abuses should be avoided at all costs—they make an instructor look foolish and vindictive, but more importantly, it causes a student to lose self confidence in himself. When utilized in this manner, the simulator becomes a useless piece of equipment to both parties. Simulators were created to save lives—if used properly by instructors, they will do just that.
About John Wills
John Wills spent 2 years in the U.S. Army before serving 12 years with the Chicago Police Department (CPD). He left the CPD to become an FBI Special Agent, working organized crime, violent crime, and drugs. John served as the Principal Firearms Instructor, Training Coordinator, and sniper team leader in the Detroit Division for 10 years. Before retiring from the FBI, he spent 7 years teaching at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. He has taught Street Survival domestically and internationally, as well as supervised new agent training at the Academy. John is a member of ASLET and the FBINAA. He is presently a field manager in the Training Division of Advanced Interactive Systems. He also owns his own business—LivSafe, teaching personal safety classes. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (540) 226-9478.