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Using virtual training to enhance situational awareness

Virtual training systems allow instructors to create complex exercise scenarios that challenge every officer to maintain his or her situational awareness

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Virtual training systems allow officers to exercise in any type of threat environment.


Virtual training systems are highly customizable and are designed to provide officers with dynamic, real-world training exercises that improve situational awareness and safety.

The virtual training environment can mimic an active shooter event, a use-of-force scenario and even an average daily encounter (e.g., traffic stop). Officers who participate in virtual training will gain improved situational awareness and more training experiences, so they are more prepared to respond to any type of threat regardless of its severity.

Virtual training systems allow officers to exercise in any type of threat environment. Using virtual training systems, instructors can run officers through multiple virtual training exercises and provide immediate feedback about how the officer responded during the scenario. Officers can apply the instructor feedback immediately.

Below are examples of five types of virtual training exercises instructors can use to improve an officer’s situational awareness.

1. Emerging threats

Instructors can design any type of exercise using a virtual training system. Agencies and instructors can review recent incidents and develop an exercise that mimics these real-world events. The advantage to this type of customization is that any emerging threat that is occurring can be created in the virtual training system and exercised so officers have increased situational awareness to identify the threat and are prepared to respond. This type of training gives officers an opportunity to train under simulated conditions that their fellow officers in another jurisdiction just encountered. It is an incredible way to bring relevant training to an agency that will improve situational awareness and prepare all officers to respond effectively and safely.

2. Jurisdiction specific

In addition to training officers on emerging threats that are occurring, virtual training systems also give instructors the opportunity to customize exercises based on their unique environment, jurisdictional setting and known threats. For example, a rural jurisdiction can create exercises that a single deputy or officer might have to manage before backup arrives. This jurisdiction-specific virtual training will prepare officers and improve their situational awareness for when a real-world event occurs and they’re the only resource available for a significant period of time. Similarly, mid-and-large sized agencies can also create jurisdiction-specific exercises using virtual training systems to improve officers’ situational awareness when an emergency occurs.

3. Use of force (UOF)

At any given moment, an officer is required to make critical, life-saving decisions in a matter of seconds. This level of decision-making and situational awareness is a critical function of law enforcement, and continuous training is vital. Instructors can use training systems to simulate various scenarios in which an officer will be subjected to immediate UOF decision-making. The UOF scenarios can be prescriptive or customized based on the officer’s response and de-escalation techniques. Like real-world encounters, the officer does not know how the subject will act; it will be unpredictable. Instructors can modify the virtual training exercise based on the officer’s response.

4. Emergency medical care

Officers (whether they are EMT trained or not) are often put in a position to practice emergency medicine before EMS arrives. Officers perform life-saving medical care such as CPR, bleeding control and naloxone administration. Instructors can create exercises in which an officer needs to stop the bleed, administer treatment or perform CPR. Practicing life-saving medical care requires focus on the patient, but officers will also need to maintain situational awareness to assess scene safety. Practicing these medical exercises in a simulated environment will benefit officers and the communities they serve.

Further, beyond emergency medical care, instructors can also create unique virtual training exercises for tactical medical teams to exercise in simulated high-stress environments (e.g., active shooter, mass casualty). Tactical medical teams enter hostile environments and they need impeccable situational awareness to triage and treat as many patients as possible. Virtual training systems provide the opportunity for tactical medical teams to exercise in simulated high-stress environments. The systems can be programmed to challenge the calmest emergency medical professionals.

5. Complex threats

Virtual training systems are highly customizable and allow instructors the opportunity to create complex exercise scenarios that will challenge every officer to maintain his or her situational awareness to protect the innocent and stay safe. Instructors can simulate gunfire, loud sounds, gunshot wounds, hostile subjects, active shooters and more. The duration of the exercise can also vary depending on the intensity of the scenario. An officer may only have a few seconds to respond and neutralize the threat or have several minutes to attempt to de-escalate and neutralize a dynamic threat. After running complex threat exercises, officers can receive immediate feedback for applied correction. This immediate opportunity to run the exercise again will demonstrate improved situational awareness, which will increase officer safety and survivability.


Whether an agency is in the process of selecting new recruits, evaluating officers for potential promotion, or establishing fit-for-duty baselines, virtual training systems give agencies the opportunity to simulate low, medium and high-stress scenarios. Virtual training systems provide efficient and realistic training coupled with the chance for immediate behavioral correction. Continually exercising scenarios in a virtual environment will help improve officers’ situational awareness and manage their stress levels as dynamics change. Officers who participate in virtual training improve their situational awareness, their training and their preparedness for real-world events. Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is examining virtual training systems for public safety. Agencies and companies will benefit from this research.

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Heather R. Cotter has been working with public safety professionals for 20 years and understands the resource challenges and constraints agencies face. Heather is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and holds two master’s degrees from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. Contact her at