LYNNWOOD — From the outside, Snohomish County Deputy Tim Leo appeared to be interacting with thin air in a middle school gymnasium on Wednesday: He opened imaginary doors, shouted commands at nobody in particular and fired a fake gun at invisible bad guys.
Inside a set of virtual reality goggles, however, he was immersed in a digital world and in the midst of an active shooter scenario. Leo, Deputy Lucas Robinson and Department of Corrections Officer Mike Woodruff — all members of the Snohomish County Violent Offenders Task Force — walked through hallways, going room to room, following the sound of screaming and gunfire in search of a suspect.
In a matter of minutes, the scenario was over. They took off their goggles and filed into a separate room, where an instructor replayed the experience and showed them what they did wrong.
Throughout the week, law enforcement officers from all over the county used virtual reality to run through active shooter training scenarios at the old Alderwood Middle School in Lynnwood, guided by Louisiana State University instructors and funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
The event in Snohomish County is the second time in the nation that law enforcement officers have participated in the virtual reality training, which was developed by New York-based company V-Armed. The first sessions were in May, in New York.
Virtual reality offers several benefits when compared to “live” trainings with physical venues and actors, said Ray McPortland, a senior instructor with LSU’s National Center for Biomedical Research and Training. Officers can move more quickly through a wide variety of scenarios, which can take place in any number of settings, and have no limits when it comes to the number of suspects or potential victims.
Afterward, officers can see on a TV screen exactly what they did and didn’t do right. They assess whether they could have approached a room more safely, or whether they appropriately covered their rear. And they can review small details, like when they accidentally point a gun at their teammates.
Because it’s all on video, and available to view from multiple perspectives in the 3-D world, officers can’t argue with the results.
“If someone makes a mistake, they have to fess up to it,” McPartland said.
As more trainings are held, and as the technology advances, McPartland said programmers can continue to tweak the scenarios to make them more challenging and more realistic for officers.
Though at first glance the virtual reality scenarios may remind some people of a video game, complete with statistics after each session, Leo said he became immersed in the fictional world.
“It’s easy to forget,” he said. “In our minds, we’re going room to room to room.”