Federal agents using training simulator

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FBI and Border Patrol agents are going beyond traditional firearms training and testing their judgment and reactions to stressful situations.

With an interactive training simulator, agents face real-life situations tailored to their area of training and must make decisions about their use of force. With each decision, the training takes them on a different path, allowing agents to apply their classroom and firing range training.

"Before, when we were doing firearms training, you were basically shooting at a target, and it doesn't shoot back at you and it doesn't react," said Xavier Rios, a supervisory Border Patrol agent in McAllen, Tex.

Border Patrol agents, now part of the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, have been using IES Interactive Training Inc.'s Range 3000 XP4 for a few months, Rios said. The FBI recently bought a mobile training unit for special agents and law enforcement officers.

"We force them to apply everything we taught them in the classroom and on the range," said Joe Mason, vice president of IES Interactive Training, based in Littleton, Colo. "If they're not able to, there must be some segment of the training they didn't comprehend."

The mobile training unit includes a laptop computer console, a projector and a host of digital video scenarios. The Border Patrol also purchased a 28-foot trailer to house the unit, allowing the agency to move the simulator to locations across the country.

The Border Patrol has nine patrol stations across 19 south Texas counties and 17,000 square miles, Rios said. The simulator brings interactive training to the 1,000 agents who otherwise would have to travel to one of the national academy's three locations.

"That's the environment [in which] the agent would be exposed to that equipment," Rios said. "We do have tactical arms training [at the local level], but everything was static — no interactive firearms training. That was all at the academy level. None of this was available at the sector level."

Officials can mold the training to suit their needs. For example, Border Patrol agents can film scenarios of traffic stops along the Texas border. The training unit comes equipped with video-editing software, so officials need only a digital video camera and a few willing actors to create their own training videos, Mason said.

"We've made it so it works very simply," Mason said. "It's filmed in the first person, in the perspective of the officer, so it's not like Hollywood."

A trainer controls the training session from the console, choosing the path depending on the agent's reactions. For example, a trainer may present an agent with a suspect who threatens the agent. The agent must then decide to use his firearm, baton or chemical spray.

"It basically allows the student to make decisions, split-second decisions, based on what he's seeing," Rios said, noting that the Border Patrol is currently customizing scenarios.

The trailer expands an extra 10 feet on each side to give agents room to react to scenarios. Agency officials can build walls or props to make the situation more realistic. "It doesn't necessarily feel like a video game where there is no interaction except you controlling the screen," Rios said.

Each system is custom-built for the customer, Mason said, and costs about $45,000. The trailer can cost an extra $60,000. The FBI opted to buy just the training system.

The simulator is expected to help agencies save on travel expenses and overtime pay for employees who travel to training centers across the country. Once the trainers are instructed on how to use the unit, they can drive it to the patrol stations along the southern border, Rios said.

"We reduce the cost of travel expenses," Rios said. "Once you start getting into far distances, you have to pay the employees for participating."

Katherine Jones, a research director for Aberdeen Group, said technology has advanced and prices have gone down to allow for more simulation training. She said simulation training is ideal for testing an agent's reaction to an unknown situation and checking his or her decision-making skills under pressure.

"You still know it's a simulation, but you have that sense of the moment you don't get with other kinds of training," Jones said. "I, as a student, can judge the whole view."

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