On the ball

Police officers train with a large-screen simulation of a crisis they might encounter on duty. Officers in the Northwest Network of VHA hospitals have customized 50 scenarios, scripting and playing the on-screen roles themselves.

Advanced Interactive Systems inc.

Veterans Affairs police train in crisis conditions

A Veterans Affairs police officer is called in to subdue an unruly hospital patient'routine duty that turns sour. The patient pulls out a knife and stabs the officer.

Instead of winding up in another hospital bed, the officer turns to the instructor and asks that the situation be replayed.

The officer and other recruits in the Northwest Network of Veterans Health Administration hospitals are taking advanced simulation training to test their reactions in a crisis without the physical consequences.

They might get shot at if they fail to react properly, but with nylon balls rather than bullets.
The simulations 'put officers in situations they wouldn't normally be involved in,' said Capt. Michael Sweeney, supervisory training officer at the VA Medical Center in Portland, Ore. 'It can give them the benefit of hindsight.'

An $80,000 portable simulation package teaches the recruits about response and restraint. The package, fitted into three metal suitcases, travels in a minivan each quarter to one of the seven VA medical centers in the Northwest, Sweeney said.

At each site, the hardware takes about a half-hour to set up or take down. It consists of a sound system, projector, sensors and large display screen, linked to the Universal Serial Bus ports of a multidrive IBM ThinkPad or Dell Inspiron notebook PC.

The AIS/PRISim Laptop System from Advanced Interactive Systems Inc. of Seattle uses the notebook's video card to play prerecorded MPEG-2 images on the large screen.

VA police used a digital camera to film the training scenarios for situations such as stopping vehicles, handling crowds and responding to burglaries. Their own officers served as scriptwriters and stars of the 50 simulated scenes.

Once the police had to build a makeshift smoking shack for drug paraphernalia training, but usually they set the scenes in roped-off hospital rooms after hours.

The more self-conscious students find it daunting to respond in full gear to giant moving pictures, Sweeney said.

'The first time, they need to get over the fact that they're speaking to a screen,' he said. 'Some need a little bit of coaching.'

Others, however, feel the adrenaline and react strongly with heightened blood pressure and heart rates.

Each of the 50 scenarios steers the students through cause-and-effect branches. They relate different outcomes, good or bad, to right or wrong decisions by the students.

If an outcome results in a shooting because an officer failed to take proper cover, an air compressor cannon spits out 0.68-caliber, laser-guided, paintball-like nylon balls triggered automatically by the camera and sensors or manually by the instructor.

'We can simulate whatever an officer carries'Beretta, Glock, M-16, rapid-fire,' said Greg Hoover, director of law enforcement training for Advanced Interactive Systems. 'It's designed for each individual's department.'

Choose your weapon

Instead of gunplay, a scene might demand that a trainee use a Taser stun-gun or pepper spray. VA instructors also can black out the background as if it were night, forcing trainees to use flashlights.

VA officers, however, are more often called on to protect the infirm and elderly than to fight on the streets. 'It's a different kind of policing in health care,' said Christopher Price, deputy director of the VA Law Enforcement Training Center in North Little Rock, Ark. 'You don't manhandle 70-year-old people in wheelchairs.'

The simulations reinforce the basics in one out of every 10 classes for the 1,600 VA police officers.

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