By Eugene Curtin / Leader Associate Editor
They could, and occasionally do, rustle up a dozen or so volunteer actors, commandeer a school library, alert the public that this is a test – this is only a test – and then carry out a one-time enactment of a school hostage situation.
It’s a lot to organize, and Bellevue Police Department officers had better drink in the experience because the opportunity won’t come around often.
Or, they could walk down a flight of steps into the basement of the police department’s new Wall Street headquarters and step into the newly installed $350,000 VirTra incident simulator.
There, amidst the simulator’s five life-size panels, lawmen can step into a virtual school environment at any time, traverse virtual corridors in life-sized high-definition, with screaming, life-sized students rushing by, injured victims screaming in pain, and a terrified student being held hostage by a desperate criminal.
And they can do it as many times as they wish, as often as they like, until alertness and efficiency become instinct, and situational awareness in the face of chaos and terror becomes second nature.
“It’s the only one of its kind in the region,” said Bellevue Police Chief Mark Elbert. “The closest one like it is in Chicago.”
The VirTra’s outstanding feature, he said, is that its five screens create an almost 360-degree environment where the officer must be aware at all times of what’s happening around him or her. Lesser simulators provide one or two screens directly in front of the officer, Elbert said, which is useful, but does not recreate a real-world environment.
The VirTra is equipped with dozens of realistic scenarios that leap on to the screen at the press of a button.
But it is also customizable.
Officers, for example, could take photos of the Bellevue City Council chambers and upload those to the five screens, thus creating a virtual, highly realistic and life-sized reproduction. They can insert bad guys and hostages into the scenario, and cause perpetrators to leap on to the screen.
Officers are monitored as they advance through a scenario, with poor responses recorded. If a response is especially poor – if, for example, an officer fails to notice a development that might render him or her injured or possibly killed – he or she may be zapped with a light electrical charge.
Elbert said the simulator raises Bellevue’s training program to a new level.
“It really is cutting edge, we’re super excited about it,” he said. “Because of the number of repetitions that are now possible, and because they are so easy to schedule, we can now do much more realistic training than we ever could before.”
Elbert said police-involved shootings that occasionally make national news can be reduced with training.
“Policing is very stressful,” he said. “Human beings have a natural tendency to lose some of their fine motor skills when they are under enormous stress, so the more they train under those conditions, the more they can remain calm and collected.”
The $350,000 cost of the simulator was raised at the Sept. 8 City Council session.
Councilwoman Carol Blood said some residents had objected to the cost at a time when city finances are tight and ways to reduce spending are being sought.
But, she said, the police department has reduced its spending and earned a tool that will enhance the safety both of officers and the general public.
City Finance Director Rich Severson said the department has saved more than enough to afford the simulator.
The police department’s 2103-2014 spending came in just over $1 million under budget, he said, primarily through cuts in overtime costs.
“That’s money they have already saved, not what they intend to save,” he said.
Elbert also raised the possibility of selling time on the simulator to other police departments, which he said could eventually earn back its cost.
“We’ve talked about it quite a bit,” he told Councilwoman Kathy Saniuk. “We just have to iron out those details as to how much that would cost them.”
And, yes, kids, you might get a free shot at it.
“We fully intend to integrate this into our police citizens academy and our teen academy,” Elbert said. “It would be good for people to get a little taste of the pressures involved in policing.”