The exercise started out fine: Hillsborough Community College (HCC) police academy student Roger Leyton was responding to a domestic disturbance call and was talking with the wife as her husband paced nervously nearby
Suddenly, Leyton lost visual contact of the husband — and that’s when things unraveled quickly.
As Leyton was looking for the husband, he turned his back to the wife. When he turned around again, she was holding a gun. BANG! Game over.
Fortunately, it was just a live simulation, and the parties involved were law enforcement professionals who were playing roles. But the exercise taught Leyton a valuable lesson he won’t soon forget.
“I learned that situations can change very quickly, and you have to be ready for anything,” he says. “I thought I had established a rapport with the woman, and besides, she was the original complainant. But once she realized that if I took her husband to jail, she would lose that income, she became confrontational as well.”
Preparing for the unexpected
Community colleges play a key role in training the nation’s police officers and other public safety employees, such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). And much of this training takes place outside the classroom, in role-playing exercises and other simulations that thoroughly prepare students for what they’re apt to encounter in the field.
Some of these situations involve live actors. Others involve sophisticated technologies, such as immersive virtual environments or even “burn buildings” that can replicate different kinds of fires.
Scenario-based training has been an important part of Leyton’s police academy experience at Florida’s HCC, including an advanced firearms training simulator that’s like being inside a life-sized video game. “It’s the most impressive (training) I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Meeting a critical need
Many people aren’t aware of how significant a role two-year institutions play in training emergency first responders, says John Meeks, director of postsecondary adult vocational and workforce programs at HCC.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice survey, there were 664 police academies operating at the state and local level in 2013 — and community colleges operated one-third of them.
“I think the public assumes these are being operated by the local police department or sheriff’s office, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Meeks says.
In Florida, there are 40 police academies serving 67 counties. Of those, 22 are operated by two-year colleges. The numbers are similar for fire academies, Meeks says: Of the 42 fire academies in the state, 17 of them are run by two-year colleges.
The demand for these programs is high. There is a constant need for workers to fill the public safety pipeline, Meeks notes. And once they’re hired, public safety employees must continue to receive skills training and recertification, often on an annual basis.
“You’re always going to have vacancies because of retirements, people changing careers or injuries that occur on the job,” he explains. “Quite frankly, it feels like we can never get ahead. We’re just graduating enough to tread water.”
Building local partnerships
A 2015 article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services reports that a shortage of qualified paramedics and EMTs across the country has compromised the nation’s ability to provide adequate pre-hospital care.
Fewer volunteers and higher standards in training for emergency first responders “have impacted our ability to provide high-quality care,” the article states. “The current staffing shortages … have taxed our response system, increased response times, and left patients without adequate levels of care.”
To ensure they are meeting critical workforce needs, HCC and other community colleges have forged close relationships with their local public safety agencies.
“We have advisory boards with representation from our law enforcement and fi refighting agencies,” Meeks says. “These boards meet on a monthly basis, and in between we talk almost daily.” The college also partners with these agencies in recruiting applicants.
Leyton served for eight years as a U.S. Marine before enrolling in HCC’s police academy, and that’s fairly common. In fact, the college and its public safety partners actively recruit veterans who are retiring from active duty in the military.
“Law enforcement, firefighting, EMTs — those programs are all paramilitary,” Meeks says. “The employees wear uniforms; there’s a rank structure and a chain of command very similar to the military. So, recruiting veterans is a natural fit. They already bring leadership skills, and they’ve worked in dangerous environments, so it’s not much of a stretch to ask them to work in public safety. Those jobs require long hours, dedication, and a commitment to public service — and veterans seem to fi ll all of those needs.”
Even with prior military training, the situations a police officer encounters can unfold quickly. They require split-second judgment and decision making. To help recruits and career officers learn to make better decisions in high-stress situations, HCC uses a $200,000 firearms training simulator called FATS (short for Firearms Training System).
“It’s like a gigantic projector that’s hooked up to a computer, and it projects onto a big movie screen,” Meeks says. “You can adjust the distance a recruit is shooting from, up to 50 yards away. The students are shooting real guns, but instead of shooting live bullets they’re shooting an invisible laser beam that is tracked using Bluetooth technology.”
Because there are no live rounds used, the instructor can stand right next to a student and watch his or her performance. The computer also monitors how the student is shooting.
“The computer can analyze how the student is squeezing the trigger or holding the gun,” Meeks says. “Are they canting it left or right? Are they looking over their sight before they pull the trigger? Is the muzzle of the barrel moving up and down or from side to side? Are they jerking it or shaking it before they pull the trigger, which throws the shot off?”
He adds, “We can analyze all of those other mechanics before they go to the gun range and shoot a live round. Shooting live ammunition is very expensive, and when you have 50 to 70 law enforcement agencies in your area trying to share the same range, getting range time is very difficult — so it’s important to be able to use alternate methods.”
After cadets learn basic marksmanship training, “we run them through different scenarios on the simulator,” he says. “The cadet is standing in front of the screen and role playing based on what they’re seeing.”
As a scenario unfolds, the instructor can change its outcome. “If the officer isn’t using proper verbal commands or police tactics, maybe it escalates to the point where the recruit has to draw his weapon and fire at the screen,” Meeks says. “In some cases, if they use proper verbal and de-escalation techniques, the officer never has to draw her weapon during the scenario at all. And because they’re being recorded, we can play it back. A picture is worth a thousand words, and often you don’t realize what you’re saying or doing in the heat of the moment.”
The simulation-based training helps officers hone their decision-making skills.
“We spend a lot of time training on police tactics and skills, weapons use and unarmed self-defense,” Meeks says. “But communication, decision-making and crisis intervention are just as important. If you use those other skills properly, maybe you can de-escalate the situation and avoid using your weapon altogether.”