The Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) at the Norwegian Police University College. (Photo: Sveinung Uddu Ystad/Politihøgskolen)

Police learn how to shoot in cyberspace

The firearms training simulator, with a bit of personality and experience, can help police recruits learn how to handle critical situations.

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The police cadet is ready for action with all her senses primed. She sees a house in front of her. A dangerous person is said to be inside. She has her Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun out, ready to fire.

She walks from room to room. Several people are in the house. A door bangs open – a person is standing there. Is this an innocent bystander or a dangerous criminal?

Should she shoot?

In a real-life situation the answer could be a matter of life or death. But the house facing the police cadet isn’t real. It is computer generated and projected on a wall.

The navigation simulator at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy. (Photo: Royal Norwegian Navy)

In this simulator anything can happen and nobody really gets hurt; it’s a place to learn.

Few studies on learning by simulator

Computer technology enables us to practice skills in increasingly difficult working situations where our mistakes won’t cost lives, from battle situations to surgical procedures and aircraft flights.

But how effective are these simulators? How much do they really increase real-life skills?

Evelyn-Rose Saus has sought an answer in her doctorate work. She investigated the use of simulators at the Norwegian Police University College and the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, where they are used educationally.

Evelyn-Rose Saus. (Photo: Jan Kåre Wilhelmsen)

“Very few studies have been made of situation awareness and the effect of training,” she says.

Improving situation awareness

Saus has given special focus on the way simulators influence and develop what is called situation awareness. This is the capability of comprehending a situation, interpreting and understanding it.

“Such understanding enables you to predict what will happen in the near future,” Saus explains.

She thinks education by the simulator should also train situation awareness, rather than just technical skills.

A person might have their techniques down pat, but they lack the ability to read a situation and respond properly, she adds.

Scenario training gives better performance

This was clearly demonstrated in the study at the Norwegian Police University College. Some of the students used the simulator as a kind of firing range only, whereas others trained for scenarios that increase their situation awareness during police missions requiring the use of firearms.

Results show the students doing scenario training reported higher situation awareness and better performance than those who simply practiced their skills with weapons.

Personality is a factor

The study shows that the personality of a student is important for his or her situation awareness.

“Personality is surely a factor to consider when personnel are being selected,” stresses Saus.

She studied the way cadets at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy used a simulator to learn navigation at sea. The simulator is like the bridge of a ship with a computer-generated view in all directions.

She says it was evident that extroverted, methodical and emotionally stable persons have a high degree of situation awareness and potentially more to gain from practicing on the simulator.

These robust personalities appears to be more adept at regulating their body responses to stress. They are thus better adapted to the environment.

Realism has an impact

Simulators have become more realistic along with technological advances. Mono-coloured squares have been replaced by photo-realistic figures in projected landscapes.

But does this realism pay off with better learning?

According to Saus the realistic experience has an impact when the training demands a lot of mental pressure. But in lots of situations, simpler and less realistic simulators work just as well.

In the crime simulator at the Police University College the realism is first rate. Pressurised carbon dioxide cartridges make the automatic weapon recoil and it sounds as if real ammo is being fired. A laser beam marks where shots have hit.

Technology evolves faster than us

Evelyn-Rose Saus’s results show that training situation awareness in a simulator can have a great effect even in short training intervals.

One example is the lack of situation awareness in air disasters where everyone in the cockpit is totally focused on their quirky instrumentation and nobody is noticing that the aircraft is about to crash right into the ground.

The technology has made enormous strides.

“We humans don’t change that fast. It’s vital that we practice at being aware of what’s actually happening around us, particularly in critical situations,” concludes Saus.


Evelyn-Rose Saus: Training Effectiveness: Situation Awareness Training in Simulators, Dissertation for the degree Philosophiae Doctor (PhD) at the University of Bergen, 2011.

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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