Law enforcement agencies depend on new technology to help them ensure public safety. One such innovation is virtual firearms training, a practice facility that replaces traditional guns with digital ones. Several agencies across the U.S. are exploring use of virtual firearms training to save costs, increase efficiency and flexibility, and dramatically lower the risks to officers.

Traditional shooting ranges have high maintenance costs
Live shooting ranges come with substantial liabilities stemming from such things as the impact of bullets, material composition of the ammunition, ricochets and noise. The greatest dangers, however, derive from human error.

While departments employ strict rules to promote safety, they cannot fully prevent training mishaps, like an accidental weapon discharge. The Baltimore Sun reports that these incidents often result from participant negligence. Trainees or instructors who unintentionally bring live ammunition or are careless with handling weapons during a training simulation create a potentially dangerous environment for themselves and others.

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Hazardous materials are a particular concern with an indoor shooting range. While some injuries are due to neglect of physical objects found in the range—poorly secured or malfunctioning pieces of equipment on the walls or floors, for instance—the composition of the bullets and other equipment can become a health risk.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there are two sources of lead dust at these sites. The first is during the act of shooting the gun, as the ignition of the gunpowder may cause lead to become exposed when the projectile is released. The second source is found at the other end of the range, where the bullet hits the target. Once the projectile explodes on the equipment, the lead can become airborne.

Due to the high cost of safely disposing hazardous waste, live shooting ranges are expensive to maintain. Parts damaged during training must be replaced, and the use of real firearms necessitates service by highly skilled and knowledgeable staff, further elevating expenses.

Despite the expense and safety concerns, law enforcement departments in the U.S. depend on live shooting ranges to prepare officers for field work. Looking for ways to decrease costs and increase the safety of the trainees, some departments have turned to technology.

Technology benefits students and instructors
While not a replacement for live weapons training, virtual firing ranges—using laser guns, projectors, and cameras instead of live ammo—can save department resources and lower risks while preparing officers for certification.

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) methodically investigated the benefits of training simulations before it began opening its virtual firing ranges. One key study by Team Orlando—a community of organizations working to improve human performance through simulation—measured how different students performed when training in live and virtual shooting ranges. According to the 2010 results, no discernible difference existed between the settings. Based on these findings, FLETC was convinced that simulations would help trainees to better understand marksmanship fundamentals, such as stance, grip, sight alignment and trigger control.

FLETC converted a dormant live-fire range that had closed due to safety issues into three virtual firing ranges. The organization plans to open similar ranges at their other residential training sites in New Mexico and South Carolina.

Expanding from 24 to 72 shooting lanes at its Georgia headquarters, FLETC anticipated that the initial investment in virtual ranges would provide substantial cost savings in the long run. Lead firearms instructor Rodney Burnett told GCN last May that these ranges cost substantially less than the pricetag for a new live-fire range. Over the course of one year, the use of virtual programs could save agencies up to $379,000. The simulated ranges will also create less environmental impact because no live ammunition is fired.

Virtual ranges could even mitigate the stress often felt by novices when handling real ammunition. In Team Orlando’s research report, Andria Heese—an intern from William Jewell College who participated in the 2010 study—explained that she appreciated the virtual range because it introduced her to the act of shooting without forcing her to interact with live fire.

“I found the virtual firing range very helpful,” Heese said in the report. “I have never fired or even touched a handgun in my life and this experience helped me learn to shoot in an atmosphere that was less intimidating than going straight to a firing range with real bullets.”

Instructors benefit as well. Without the noise that accompanies live firing ranges, conversations about technique can happen at a normal level. The flexibility of the virtual environment allows more trigger pulls across different scenarios without increasing course length. This flexibility also accommodates more immediate feedback and correction by instructors, who can replay interactions to analyze with the trainee. The simulator automatically tracks student performance for trending and recordkeeping.

Virtual ranges supplement firearms training
While virtual firing ranges offer a bevy of benefits to trainees and jurisdictions alike, they cannot replace the live-fire ranges that teach individuals how to interact with the firearms they will use in the field. Virtual ranges, though, can prove to be an excellent supplemental training tool for law enforcement agencies. Certification may require interacting with real guns and ammunition, but virtual ranges are a cost-effective way of safely preparing recruits for the live experience.

Officers in the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department recently adopted a virtual training exercises to assist officers in making real-time decisions with their firearms, without actually requiring the police to have them on hand. Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers explained to Whittier Daily News that the blend of technology and real-world training would be crucial for adequately preparing officers for dangerous situations.

“Enhancing our training practices with modern technology is essential in preparing our deputies to handle real life situations in their day-to-day work,” Rogers explained. “This is as close as we can do for the role playing. It’s more convenient for training more people.”

As more law enforcement leaders learn how virtual training simulations can save time, money and lives, this technology will be adopted with greater speed. Further combining virtual training with real life firearms training better prepares officers to safely confront dangers in the field, giving them the opportunity to hone both their physical and technological skills while reducing costs and safety hazards.

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