A timely simulation

Edmonds police officers get virtual reality active shooter training
By Cheryl Aarnio | Aug 08, 2019
Photo by: Cheryl Aarnio From left: Mike Woodruff, Luke Robinson, and Tim Leo go through virtual reality active shooter training at Alderwood Middle School.

Last week, just a few days before the mass shootings that killed more than 30 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, law enforcement officers in Snohomish County engaged in active-shooter training that proved only too prescient.

Officers with the Edmonds Police Department, deputies and officers with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Washington State Patrol and Seattle Police Department, went through a virtual-reality (VR) course at the old Alderwood Middle School in Lynnwood.

Twenty-five to 30 law enforcement officers per day went through the eight-hour course; about 130 completed it throughout the week.

The pilot program was organized and delivered to two jurisdictions throughout the country by the Louisiana State University National Center for Biomedical Research and Training (LSU NCBRT), with financing from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). V-Armed provided the VR technology.

The Sheriff’s Office and the Edmonds School District coordinated the program locally.

Snohomish County was the second location in the nation to test the pilot program, which features a variety of VR active-shooter scenarios based on real-life incidents.

“Our officers train regularly, including some of our officers having attended the VR training last week,” said Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan.

“It is an unfortunate reality of where we are as a society, but active shooter training is a regular component of what we do.

“Not only is training offered specifically on active shooter response, we also do ancillary training as part of our three-times-per-year firearms qualification on various response techniques and tactics. More specialized training is afforded SWAT and school resource officers, including officer-hostage rescue and hostage negotiations.”

Edmonds Police also has a written active-shooter policy that states goals and procedures.

Both Meadowdale and Edmonds-Woodway high schools have armed, full-time school resource police officers (SROs) on campus during the school year.

An SRO was in the City of Edmonds’ budget for former Woodway High School campus but is on hold after several parents raised concerns at an Edmonds School District board meeting in April.

The Edmonds campus is home to Scriber Lake – where the officer would be placed – and Edmonds Heights, both alternative high schools enrolling students throughout the district. The campus is also home to the VOICE program.

The campus currently employs an unarmed retired police officer.

“It is still on hold,” Compaan said. “The Edmonds School District will apparently be discussing it further this fall. The current Scriber campus civilian safety officer has agreed to stay on for the 2019-2020 school year, so the need for immediate decision was kicked down the road for a bit.

“We still have the position in our budget as a placeholder, but we are leaving the position unfilled until the district gives us direction.”

Active-shooter scenarios

On July 31, law enforcement officers in teams of three responded to active shooter scenarios. They wore VR headsets and body gear and could communicate with each other with their voices and movements.

“In the virtual world, we can set up the stage. I can be in multiple environments changing at the push of a button, or I can take it from a school to a mall to a shopping center to a hotel where I could never do that in reality-based training,” said Ray McPartland, senior instructor for NCBRT.

After going through the scenario, officers saw their after-action reviews to determine what they could do better and what they did well.

There are statistics in the after-action review. They can see the number of shots fired and hits sustained. Officers can see how many times, if any, one of them drew their weapon across another officer, and can take that information and work to lower that number in the next scenario.

Deputy Tim Leo, with the Snohomish County Violent Offender Task Force said, “Cops, we’re the biggest critiques of ourselves. And it’s easy to go through a shoot house or a scenario and say, ‘Hey, you didn't do what you should have done.’ And then the other person denies it or admits it. Whereas with this, there’s no hiding what we did well or what we didn't do well.”

Officers could also see the VR footage of the scenario they went through from different views, like an overhead or first-person view.

Deputy Luke Robinson, with the Snohomish County Violent Offender Task Force, said, “You get to see it being played in front of you, and you remember the different areas that you were wondering about, see the things that you need to adjust or do better next time, the different things you need to improve communication, or how you're positioning yourself with your group.”

Each scenario has objectives, like communicating well or entering a room the proper way if an active threat is inside the room, which come from real active shooter incidents that have occurred in the U.S.

In the scenarios, there are stimuli, like blood, shell casings, or cartridges, as officers go farther into a building.

Robinson said with each scenario he found it easier to determine where he should move thanks to real-looking stimuli. When people were running away from a room, he realized that was the room he should go toward instead of going into an empty room that did not have any stimuli.

VR training has many advantages over traditional active shooter training, which requires a layout that is time-consuming to set up each time a group goes through it, and also requires many actors.

Instead of actors, VR training can easily have a large number of avatars in a scenario.

“All those individual avatars, to some degree, can be programmed to do different things to provide problems to the officer that complicates matters beyond their average response,” McPartland said.

Trainers can create their own VR scenarios. V-Armed gives them the interface to create multiple scenarios, which is an asset since agencies train their officers differently, said Elad Dabush, chief technology innovation officer for V-Armed.

“It’s all about giving them the flexibility to create as many scenarios or locations in VR that they cannot do, or is really hard to mimic, in real life,” he said.

With the VR training, each scenario the officers went through were different. One scenario took place in a school; another took place in a shopping center. Altogether, each team went through eight to 12 scenarios.

Now that the pilot program is over, which was piloted in only two areas, with the New York Police Department in April and in Snohomish County, the program will likely spend two weeks in six large jurisdictions to train officers over the next year, said Jason Krause, associate director of NCBRT.

Scott Parker, patrol division commander for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, works for NCBRT. The executive director of the organization indicated that he wanted to pilot the program in the Seattle area, and Parker helped with the logistics and found the facility for the training, the old Alderwood Middle School.

“We’re able to collaborate with each other and follow the same concepts and principles,” Parker said, “so if an active threat occurs in Snohomish County, we have 130 officers that have been through this training that can behave in a similar manner.”


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