Last September I traveled to the tourist Mecca of North Carolina. It was one of those occasions when I got on a plane only vaguely aware of where I would be when I got off. When I booked my ticket I remembered thinking—is there really an airport in Greensboro? There was, thankfully.
I was going to Guildford Technical Community College and Public Safety Training Academy, Jamestown, N.C., and I was so excited I grinned the whole way, included in the full body scanner at Winnipeg airport, and even as I lined up to fly to Frankfurt from O’Hare (wrong line, but I’m British and we like to queue).
I’ve toured a few police stations and visited a wonderful sheriff’s department in Nevada (professional reasons only), but this was my first time with the WRITERS’ POLICE ACADEMY (2010).
I blogged about some of the day-to-day activities here here and here for those thinking of attending, but I realized I never actually post anything about THE thing that made the trip so worthwhile.
The FireArms Training Simulator--FATS.
Throughout the conference/academy everyone would ask in excited voices, you been to FATS yet? And the sweat and exhilaration was like a drug. I was one of the very last people to do mine, but oh man, it was worth the price of admission. In the first room, you’re in a group of three people, the second room, you are on your own.
These are the [edited] notes I made on the plane home—same day.
First room: You go into the room and have the gun [a modified Glock that shot laser beams with enough recoil to simulate the real thing] explained to you. You have to drop the cartridge, reload, and then pull back the slide to load [between each video scenario]. Then you keep your trigger finger along the barrel rather than on the trigger (that and not pointing it at anyone helps to stop the wrong person getting shot). You grip and place your other hand beneath the gun and interlock the thumbs. Aim through the sights.
Different scenarios come up on the screen and you have to work out when you can/should take a shot at someone. [These are real training videos. Before the FATS training we got information sheets from the Use-of-Force Trainer/consultant on when you can use lethal force. I couldn’t believe you couldn’t just shoot someone running away. Kidding. But there are strict rules and if you mess up you could end up ruining your career and on the wrong side of the judicial system (I’m not touching the morals/ethics of the situation here, just the basic facts)].
So you stand there with your feet planted when things start to happen on this big screen. [I’m pretty self-conscious so felt like a total dweeb talking my imaginary foes off all these different ledges—and yes, there were times I wanted to talk dirty to them—Dirty Harry :).] What I noticed was people often get into a cycle of saying the same thing over and over. Put the gun down. Put the gun down. Over and over. Need to engage in different way. Can shoot if feel imminent threat to yourself or others. A person holding a gun and pointing it in your direction counts. Holding a knife and walking towards you counts. Dropping weapon and trying to punch you doesn’t count. Someone committing suicide does not count [don’t shoot the man who wants to commit suicide! Many trainees did].
Focus is extreme. But trying to aim and at the same time be aware of situation is difficult (and this was just a 2-D screen in front of you rather than 360° 3-D world). Things happen fast, so aiming within that timescale is hard. Training is key. Makes it automatic.
I loved the adrenaline and the power. You sweat. You tremble. You feel under pressure. Start questioning all situations. Start wondering if people are always reaching for gun. One guy reaching for his jacket got shot as soon as his hand went out of sight.
You shoot if you or someone else is in imminent lethal danger and if you can make the shot. If you shoot too early then you can escalate the situation and everyone starts firing.
In the second room: the gun doesn’t require reloading. The guy would critique us and then make us doubt ourselves. Sweat and shake. Firm stance. Become more suspicious of everyone. Actually this guy liked to make us fail, I think it’s probably what they do to real recruits until they ‘get’ how they are supposed to behave under these tense situations without putting themselves in danger or shooting every second person they meet.
I started to get it by the second room. The guy took the practice targets an extra two rows back compared to the other people I trained with [oh, the glory]. Then the bugger started moving them around and I was toast. But I was pretty impressed with myself because it was the first time I’d really fired a handgun. One funny aside for me...I did FATS with 2 lovely ladies. One was a dead-eye shot, the other made everyone dance. It was the second lady who said with a little shake of her head, “I really must get out to the range more.” I just about fell through the floor. [I did mention British, right?”].
I've already used some of the scenarios and situations covered at WPA in the last two manuscripts I've written. I bought Lee Lofland's book POLICE PROCEDURE & INVESTIGATION which has some very useful information in it. I'm not going to pretend I get everything right--I don't. There are some situations when I know I'm going to have to not follow correct procedure to make things work in my story. But I am trying my hardest with the information that is now available to me to make my stories as authentic as possible.
Check out the next Writers' Police Academy online. (They changed the hotel. Thank goodness :)