Tech Q&A: Brian Wardell of VirTra Systems

Over the past decade and a half, VirTra has grown in size and introduced some truly innovative solutions for law enforcement and military firearms training

Last year at ILEETA, I had the unique pleasure of working out a little in the VirTra Systems high-definition training simulator that CEO Bob Ferris and the gang from VirTra had set up in a small conference room. As I wrote at the time, “Brian Wardell set the simulator system up with a scenario, and proceeded to watch me fall almost immediately into the trap of auditory exclusion and tunnel vision. The system, which can offer a nearly countless variety of scenarios put me at an unknown trouble call atop a parking structure. The discomfort of the Threat-fire safe return fire system is just enough negative reinforcement to know I had quickly failed that exercise.”

If you’re unfamiliar with VirTra Systems, here’s a quick précis. The company began back in 1993 with a relatively simple-sounding mission: “Develop, manufacture, sell, and support the finest simulators, accessories, and training scenarios in the world.” While simple sounding, I’m certain that achieving that objective was anything but simple. Nonetheless, it appears they’re as near to the center of that target as that may have hoped to be when that was the final mission statement left on the conference room whiteboard.

Over the past decade and a half, VirTra has grown in size and introduced some truly innovative solutions for law enforcement and military firearms training. For example, VirTra’s magazines are refillable, which can result in a significant cost saving versus using individual CO2 cartridges. Those magazines also behave like real magazines, locking the slide back after the correct amount of shots or at any time to simulate malfunctions. VirTra has also developed a pretty remarkable sound system, which incorporates transducers so you can feel explosions, traffic, or helicopters, and not just hear them.

VirTra has also undergone some interesting corporate changes — in a merger between Ferris Productions, Inc. and GameCom in September 2001, VirTra became a public company, for example. It’s a shade more complicated than that, but the sum of it is that they’re now on the OTC Boards under ticker symbol VTSI, and its stock can be purchased from just about any brokerage firm, including discount or online brokerage services.

They’ve also added a slew of customers — in North America alone, VirTra has nearly 100 simulators in operation with a variety of law enforcement agencies, including the municipal departments in Bellevue (Wash.), Buffalo (New York), Kansas City (Mo.) and Henderson (Nev.), as well as federal departments like United States Marshals Service and Nellis Air Force Base PD. The company also has deployed simulators around the world in places like Brazil, Kosovo, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Australia, and others.

Looking at the calendar and thinking about this year’s upcoming ILEETA — if you’re considering going, you should book now because that hotel fills up fast! — I thought it would be good to catch up on what’s new with the company. Most notably and most recently, the company just unveiled its VirTra Range LE, a system that the company believes is the “most realistic simulated shooting range for law enforcement.”

In an announcement issued during SHOT Show 2011, VirTra stated that its Range LE simulator has “several advantages over traditional ranges, such as: enhanced safety, no need for special air purification, no noise pollution, no armor plating, far less facility space required, can simulate both indoor /outdoor ranges and is completely environmentally friendly.”

In recent weeks, I caught up with my friend Brian Wardell, who I’m certain is looking forward to putting me through the paces of the latest from VirTra at ILEETA 2011 in April. What follows is a summary of that discussion.

PoliceOne: How have law enforcement agencies responded to VirTra Systems?
Brian Wardell: All of our clients have given us positive feedback on the system itself. The consensus is that there is nothing to compare it too. The one constant theme in the feedback has been the great customer service that VirTra provides. We have 3 specialized installer teams. Our Customer Service Manager knows the location and status of literally every piece of VirTra equipment in the world. Our warranty (whether the initial or extended) covers the entire system including the cost of sending a tech to the client’s site in the rare event it is necessary. Our system is designed to be both robust and easy to use. Most of our clients are surprised at the ease with which our system can be used

P1: What does a VirTra Systems simulator and software setup cost for a typical deployment?
Wardell: We don’t sell “packages” because most of our clients have a figure that they need to meet – whether a fixed budget, grant or asset forfeiture. So, we itemize our pricing. However, a typical single screen system would run in the $40-50k range, a 180 system; $85-129k, 300 system; $150-250k range. Price is determined by the number of accessories and weapons kit a client might need. We offer a complete array of accessories including less than lethal options (TASER, OC, Beanbag, etc.), low-light and we even have a breaching door accessory.

P1: When the VirTra Systems development team adds new scenarios in general, are those made available to all agencies that have already purchased the system?
Wardell: Yes, in fact at this time, all of our clients receive all new scenarios for one year at no charge. Software updates are also free.

P1: Does the VirTra Systems development team develop scenarios designed specifically for certain places within an agency’s patrol area?
Wardell: Yes, absolutely! We can and have created scenarios within our client’s jurisdiction.

P1: What lessons learned or tactics reinforced on VirTra Systems can be then translated to dry-fire exercises at home, or work on the live-fire range?
VirTra Systems’ immersive simulators teach situational awareness in a way that no other company’s simulator can. Our simulators create not just a one-dimensional single screen simulation, but a fully immersive 180 or 300 degree environment. So, you stand inside of our simulators. Not in front of, like most others.

P1: What have officers said about the system after they’ve completed a series of scenarios?
The most common comment is: “Wow, this is the most realistic simulation I have seen!”

We do everything we can to make the simulations as realistic and immersive as possible. That’s because the more realistic and immersive they are, the more effective the simulation is as a training tool. That’s why we use video instead of computer generated graphics or characters. With video, the characters in the scenarios are real people. That means that we can capture subtle nonverbal cues that could be threat indicators (facial expressions, posture changes, eye movement, etc.) that cannot be conveyed by computer-generated characters.

We also try to incorporate as many senses as possible into the experience like sight, hearing and feel. We do this through several innovative accessories like our ThreatFire return fire stimulator. The ThreatFire simulates return fire by administering a small electrical shock which feels about like a rubber band snapping on bare skin. This not only provides feedback to the student, it also raises the price of improper tactics, teaches students to continue fighting in spite of being hit, and raises the amount of stress on the student during training.

The ThreatFire is small, unobtrusive, and clips on the student’s belt. Most students don’t even know it’s there. It is common for students to experience the same physiological events that they may in a real life-or-death situation — elevated pulse rate, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, tachypsychia, sweaty palms, and more. We want to impose as much stress on the students as possible in the simulations because the better we can get them to perform under stress in the simulator, the better they perform under stress from a real life situation. It is what is known as “stress inoculation,” we get them used to performing complex tasks and making complex judgment decisions under stress in the simulator to the point where the stress has little impact on their performance and decision making skills.

In essence, they become immune to (or inoculated against) stress. This is what translates to saved lives on the street — whether it’s the officer’s because he/she is used to making complex judgments and hitting targets under stress, he bad guy’s because a highly trained officer has the experience and confidence to not fire until there is no other option, or bystander’s because the officer has experience and developed the ability to hit a target while under stress.

We can’t duplicate the exact situation an officer may find himself in — we don’t need to — we can create a situation that elicits the same physiological responses. This is where the training value is, simulators should never devolve to the level of just a big video game and ours never will. Those who understand the psychology of performance and training, see the value in things like visualization, repetition, role playing, dry-firing and simulators. To those who don’t, simulators are just a game.

P1: Thanks Brian. I’ll see you in Wheeling. I’m looking forward to another great workout in the VirTra simulator!

Learn more about the VirTra Systems high-definition training simulators.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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