The Shaler Township Police Department is conducting scenario-based training to prepare for potentially life-threatening situations.
Earlier this month, the officers trained with SIMTAC Services’ firearms training simulator, which displays scenarios law enforcement officials may encounter, such as domestic disturbances, suspicious persons calls, traffic stops and active school shootings, on a large screen.
The officers — equipped with several firearms, pepper spray and Tasers discharging carbon dioxide gas when deployed — had to determine how to proceed throughout the situations.
Sgt. Josh Watkins, the department’s head firearms instructor, said the simulations responded to verbal cues.
“Every scenario can go in different directions, can escalate or de-escalate the situation and the amount of force needed to resolve it.
“One of the neat things about this is that it kind of induces that stress just as an officer would have in real life when you’re making split-second decisions,” he said. “We would have people observing them, so they are placed in this situation where they need to perform and … it adds to that stress.”
Watkins said he hopes his officers learned to “think of the big picture” and forgo “tunnel vision” when responding to real-life encounters.
“You think from watching TV or video games that you know what it’s like, but the experience of being in the room with a real police officer with a life-sized virtual situation making the decisions — it was difficult to watch,” Shaler Commissioner Lori Mizgorski said at the Oct. 11 board meeting.
The officers can use their new knowledge during “discretionary decision making,” township Manager Tim Rogers said.
SIMTAC Services owner Jeff Seeley, a retired Pennsylvania state trooper, said traditional police training typically consists of shooting range certifications, classroom lessons and Simunition training using paintball gun-type equipment.
He considers his program “another layer of training,” noting that, “in police work, you can never have too much training.”
“As a firearms instructor, one of the big things of my job is to increase the survivability of my officers in any situation,” Watkins said. “This type of training helps with that. And it increases our confidence, and it decreases any hesitation.”
The Canonsburg-based company offers more than 700 scenarios; Watkins chose 10 for the department to complete over the course of four days.
Seeley said pricing varies from $725 per day to $1,850 per week based on his travel fees and other factors.
In addition, Shaler Area school resource Officer Frank Spiker and officers Anthony Viscomi and Dennis Gapsy III are facilitating ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Countdown, Evacuate) Training to prepare teachers for active shooter events.
The method combines “classroom and practical scenarios.” The situations are “as real as we can get,” Spiker said.
“ALICE is a nationally-recognized program that has been implemented in schools across the country. The school district wanted to implement a model that was research-based, easy for staff members to understand and was supported by our local law enforcement community,” said Bethany Baker, district communications specialist.
The teachers complete the approximately three-and-a-half-hour training sessions during in-service days, Spiker said.
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.