Surrounded by five screens in a dark room, Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Jakub Klatka and partner Detective Keith Kaiser have their guns drawn. They are chasing after an armed suspect and shouting for him to drop his weapon when another situation unfolds behind them. It's only a simulation, but their hearts are racing, palms are sweating and their blood pressure is high.
"This definitely feels like the real situation," said Klatka, a five year deputy on the force. "When you're going through it, its just like you're actually in that situation." Klatka said you completely forget it's a simulation and that people are watching.
The officers took part in a VirTra Systems 300 Degree Firearms Simulator demonstration at Woodland Intermediate School in Gurnee this week. The simulator gives law enforcement personnel an opportunity to act out up to 75 different situations, using firearms, tasers, pepper spray, and bean bag guns, without anyone getting injured.
"This is as real as it can get," said Kaiser, who has served 12 years with LCSO. "It really makes you be aware of everything around you."
Each scene is controlled from a computer, allowing for the ability to intensify or change the situation based on how the officers in the simulation are reacting. The controller even has the ability to have the suspects on the screen comply or not with what the officers are asking.
The officers use real weapons in the simulation but instead of bullets their firearms are equipped with an air compressor that, when shot, feels almost exactly how their gun would. The trainees also wear a small pack that gives a shock to the officer to simulate if they were wounded by gunfire during the scenario.
"This is really 21st century," said Scott Morrison, lieutenant and director of training for the LCSO. Right now the department uses paper targets for shooting practice and train for tactical situations using rubber or paint bullets, however officers then are wearing full protective gear and the communication between other officers or the suspects is limited, Morrison said.
"We'd never be able to do this on paper. This is putting these officers in real scenarios, interacting with people, they are on sensory overload and their heart rate is up," Morrison said. "It doesn't get much better than this in regards to training."
The VirTra has a price tag upwards of $250,000. The LCSO recently presented it to the Lake County Board. If purchased the system would be permanently setup in the department where officers could be trained year-round. Between deputies, reserve deputies, forest preserve officers, the coroners office, the states attorney's investigators and court security the Lake County Sheriff's Office has 500 law enforcement officers who carry weapons. They are currently trained at the shooting range in Russell. Morrison said for each of those officers to be in the VirTra simulator for one hour four times a year would average out to $8 per officer per session.
"We go into houses or to traffic situations and have no idea what to expect," Morrison said. "Every call we have we must expect the unexpected and this absolutely gives these officers real training to deal with that."
The LCSO invited 800 departments from northeastern Illinois, southern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana to try the simulator. Several came in for the training including officers from McHenry and DuPage Sheriff's Departments, and Gurnee, Waukegan, North Chicago, Lincolnshire, Riverwoods and Highland Park Police Departments, among others.
VirTra brought the simulator from Arizona for the three day trial at no cost to the LCSO.