Dismounted simulator and NYPD training (V-ARMED/YouTube)

Virtual reality helps police train for active-shooter scenarios

Virtual reality-based training is allowing New York City Police Department officers to run through ever-changing active-shooter scenarios 10 times more quickly than they could in the real world and has the added benefit of providing immediate feedback on their performance.

In April, about 200 officers from NYPD’s patrol level, Counterterrorism Bureau and Emergency Service Unit participated in a pilot test of technology developed by V-Armed, a company that creates 3D VR training for law enforcement and first responders. In this case, participants moved through a virtual version of the city’s National September 11 Memorial.

“As a trainer, no matter where you go, you just don’t have access to areas to train in even though they’re extremely high-profile locations that you want to be prepared to defend,” Detective Raymond McPartland said. “How would I be able to shut down the World Trade Center memorial and have guys -- 100, 200 people -- actually go through and train for an eight-hour period? It would be impossible."

But with VR technology, we can have "something that’s built to scale to the exact environment and have the officers who are assigned to that environment respond to jobs," he added.

NYPD has been doing reality-based active-shooter training for awhile, but it has faced real-world constraints. For instance, the physical spaces are static, and trainers can’t add more people to increase the scenarios’ complexity.

VR changes that. In the recent weeklong test in Brooklyn, the scenarios started with an empty hallway and one empty room to acclimate trainees to the technology, McPartland said. The scenarios became incrementally more complex as more obstacles and people were added -- with the click of a mouse.

The technology also increased the number of times each group of trainees could go through a scenario by a factor of 10 -- from three to about 30, he added.

“That’s important because that’s repetition, that’s exposure, and that’s also more problems and more critical thinking that the officer has to deal with,” McPartland said. “At no point do they get accustomed to one version of a problem because we can change it on a whim.”

Officers wear goggles-like head-mounted displays, specialized guns and body markers that transmit data via Wi-Fi to motion-capture cameras mounted on a truss surrounding a 60-by-40-foot area. Using the data from the markers, the V-Armed system can track an officer’s movements and create a true-to-life avatar that matches his size and gait so that “every movement he makes in the real world is identical in the VR world,” McPartland said.

The weapons also have markers and transmit information such as number of shots fired, bullet trajectories, hits, misses and aiming -- “things that in no point would I be able to do in reality-based training because I don’t have the ability to roll back what they did,” McPartland said. “In VR, everything is recorded for playback.” Additional data includes who was hit -- good or bad guy -- and how long it took officers to move through the scene.

Louisiana State University’s National Center for Biomedical Research and Training organized the pilot test. Jason Krause, the center’s associate director of internal operations and plans, said that although V-Armed constructs the simulated environments and animations ahead of time, a company employee is onsite to ensure that the technology works properly, and instructors can tell the employee to add or remove assets.

“We’re not operating this as an experience,” Krause said. “It’s not set up so that we just line people up and send them into a virtual reality scenario and then out and then in. It’s integrated into an entire eight-hour course” certified by the Department of Homeland Security. That course starts with a lecture before moving to physical locations and then the VR simulator. Officers undergo testing and evaluations and earn a certificate at the end.

After the VR training, officers receive an after-action report and review video footage with an instructor  to discuss what they did well and where they could improve. The officers have the option of going through the scenario again to apply what they’ve learned.

“The real learning piece comes from the critical thinking because you can change anything in the environment for these scenarios,” McPartland said.

The LSU center has a cooperative agreement with DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Training and Education Division in which the center trains state, local and territorial responders. It does about 50 active-shooter trainings each year through its Law Enforcement Active Shooter Emergency Response (LASER) course, which involves classroom and location-based sessions.

The center is doing a second test this month in Lynnwood, Wash., with responders from the Pacific Northwest. After that, center officials will consider how to deliver the VR simulation as part of LASER courses next year, Krause said.

McPartland said he wants to use the technology again to determine how well officers can apply what they learned the first time. “We’d like to return back to it,” he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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