I remember how excited we all were back in the 1990s at the academy the day we found out we were getting a video simulation system. We had struggled for years doing firearms training the old fashioned way. You know, putting cartridges into real firearms and shooting them at targets. But now, we thought, we can actually do something tactical!
Oh, we d put together an advanced training class a few years before with several role-play scenarios, but that had been time consuming and expensive, and some of our instructors were pretty awkward in their bad-guy roles.
That was all over now, we thought. We could now use video simulation for more realism, the new system would be easy to use and we could accomplish more training in less time.
Boy, were we wrong. That s not to say the system we acquired was a bad thing. It just didn t live up to our relatively uninformed expectations. We quickly discovered several problems:
Documentation stunk, and so did tech support;
The computer s operating system was out of date, slow and crashed a lot (with a long reboot sequence);
The system took significant time to align and calibrate each time we used it. If the alignment was off just a little bit, it threw the whole simulation exercise off;
A couple of us were pretty computer literate, but it still took us a full day to set it up and get it running;
The video projection system was archaic and often misread hits;
The mapping of the hit zones on the moving video images (necessary for branching to occur) seemed to make little sense. Some center-mass hits were read as non-lethal shots, for instance, while some hits on the periphery of a suspect were read as fatal; and
The laser inserts trainees placed into their weapons needed specific alignment and took really tiny batteries that ran down quickly.
You get the idea. We wrestled the system into operation, and used it pretty successfully for several years. We ve since replaced it with a newer and far superior version from the same company.
Along the way, we learned a lot about video simulation training. Here are just a few lessons learned:
Trying to do too much with a simulation system results in fairly ridiculous occurrences, such as standing around while the action is over on the screen, having students give verbal commands to frozen video images;
Training indoors is okay, but coppers work outside, too. A video projection of an outdoor scene, on an indoor screen, experienced by students standing in a dark room looking at sunlit action, presents the trainee s mind with a series of impossible programming contradictions.
It s OK to shoot real firearms with laser inserts and even system-controlled firearms powered by compressed gas, but neither is a substitute for firing your own weapon, out of your own holster, with live ammunition that goes bang and causes recoil; and
Simple is better.
Technology has evolved mightily since we got that first system. Companies such as IES, AIS PRISim, VirTra, FATS, and Lasershot all put out excellent products and have addressed many of the issues we struggled with back in the 1990s. In fact, the simulation environment itself is rapidly changing, with the evolution of 360-degree systems, flexible lighting conditions and the addition of driver-training simulators. These systems have a definite place in the police training universe as part of a multi-layered training delivery system, geared toward presenting officers with many different training constructs.
But, there is still no substitute for training with real firearms and ammunition, and for training in a real realistic environment. Although some manufacturers offer live-fire options on their systems, most rely on laser mapping and other technology to drive the simulation. There is an alternative, however.
CAPS is an acronym for Canadian Academy of Practical Shooting. It s a live-fire system combined with video projection you can use on either an indoor or outdoor range. In fact, you can use it for sniper training at 100 yards.
The system uses a DVD player and video projector to display scenarios, but there the similarity to other systems ends. The projection screen is paper, and the trainee fires live ammunition at it, making holes that remain after the video is finished. Rather than reacting to and mapping laser hits on hand-drawn hit zones, the CAPS system reacts to the noise of the firearm s discharge and matches the timing of the shots to the video. When you play the video back, the system freezes the video at the points where shots were fired so that shooters can see their holes in the paper screen and judge the accuracy of their shots for themselves. Once the review is complete, you patch the holes and play the next scenario.
The approach is refreshingly low tech. No hit zones to draw and score, no lasers to align and power, no hit cameras, no concerns regarding different kinds of light interfering with reading the lasers, and no screen alignment or positioning issues you can set the screen up wherever it s shaded enough to avoid washing out the video, and although you set the projector up downrange near the target, it comes with a shield to protect it from errant rounds.
CAPS is easy for non-computer types to use; just project, shoot and then review the results. The system reacts to the shots much like a competition-shooting timer. The system is adjustable so that it will react to different numbers of shots, thereby not always stopping after the first shot.
The sound sensitivity is adjustable in case the range is in a noisy environment. And, you can use it indoors in a non-ballistically contained environment with plastic cartridges with pistol primers, although this option will probably only work with weapons that don t rely upon the recoil of a live cartridge in order to function. SIMUNITION marking cartridges and other low-velocity alternatives will also work.
In one interesting feature, the audio portion of the scenarios is broadcast to a headset incorporated into the trainee s hearing protection. This provides hearing protection while enabling the trainee to clearly hear the scenario.
The CAPS system comes loaded with more than 570 scenarios, and more are in development all the time. You can film your own scenarios, although a solid tripod mount for your camera is a must (camera movement during filming can cause problems with the scenarios). CAPS will also produce videos for you, which may be a better way to go.
The system includes pre-selected slides (similar to PowerPoint slides) synchronized to critical points in each scenario. Instructors can use these as teaching aids when reviewing the decision-making issues inherent in any use-of-force scenario.
In case you re determined to include non-lethal force options in your simulation, there s an Intermediate Force button on the instructor s controller unit. If the trainee indicates they would use intermediate force at a particular point in a scenario, the instructor pushes the button and the system reacts just as if it had heard a shot, providing a freeze-point for review.
And last but not least, the system includes a satellite camera you can set up in another room or area. That camera takes live video of the action in that room and sends it to the CAPS projector. Thus, you can have live actors go through a scenario safely away from the range, and project their actions on the screen, allowing trainees to interact with the scenario live.
In the Field
I talked with Ron Raneri, an officer, range master and lead firearms trainer with the Waltham (Mass.) Police Department regarding his department s use of the CAPS system. Ron told me, The system allows us to do so much more than we thought it would. We re getting a lot more use out of it than we thought we could. Ron characterizes the CAPS training experience as very worthwhile: When you can put people in a training situation where they use their own weapon and holster, it s ... more like being on the street, and that s good training. I asked Ron how his officers react to CAPS training, and he was pretty blunt: Some video simulators can get very arcade-like, very quickly. With live-fire simulation, officers take it more seriously because they have to.
Make no mistake, video simulation is a great tool as part of your overall approach to training. Systems based on laser mapping offer much, including a few things CAPS can t.
However, if you re primarily into firearms training, have a limited budget and want to incorporate live fire into your simulation training, CAPS might be for you.
Stay safe, and wear your vest.