The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office is implementing a new immersive virtual reality training system to practice de-escalation, compassionate communication skills, and dealing with different high-stress scenarios such as active shootings.

The VirTra simulator recreates real-world situations at school campuses, malls, courthouses, and more for law enforcement to train with.

Following the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said at a briefing this past Thursday that “it was perfect timing” to install the simulator and start the training.

“Violence stops now,” Sgt. David Weidner said.

The VirTra simulator is a 300-degree experience with five large screens, making the V-300 4K experience immersive for the trainee.

Weidner and Sgt. Philip Hallworth went through an active shooter scenario. The five screens were filled with images of a movie theatre and people started screaming and running past. The two sergeants searched for the shooter moving through the virtual landscape created by the system. The images were taken from real life; VirTra is based in Phoenix.

Trainees proceed through a virtual shopping mall in pursuit of an active shooter in a scenario created by the VirTra immersive virtual reality simulator. (Image courtesy of VirTra/Facebook)

The system can even take images from the local area. The firearms used are loaded with carbon dioxide to both activate the firearms and the lasers on the screens. It also gives the firearms the proper feeling of weight and feedback of a loaded weapon, so deputies have as close to a real-world experience as possible.

Hallworth and Weidner both described feeling their heart rates up and other signs of stress after the lights came back on and the training had ended. Each scenario lasts about five to 15 minutes. Weidner said that over time it is supposed to become less stressful for the officers.

“We call it stress-inoculation — if we continuously put them in high-stress scenarios, they are able to make decisions in high-stress situations,” he said.

The sergeants also went through other virtual scenarios of communicating with people with autism and people going through mental health crises and school shootings. All the scenarios are interactive, so a team of operators is responding to the deputies’ actions in the simulator.

‘I was sweating’

The goal is to get every deputy through the training experience. Realistically, the Sheriff’s Office believes they can get everyone through about four times a year and they will be keeping a record of everyone’s training.

Hallworth said, “Once we really get going, we are going to open it up to all of our allied agencies in the county.”

Sheriff’s spokesperson Det. Javier Acosta described his experience training in the VirTra simulator as “my heart rate went up. I was sweating. My palms were sweating. I mean the stress is real.”

Acosta compared VirTra to other virtual simulators used by local law enforcement, including one that made him nauseous to use, as well as another system that was limited to one screen rather than San Mateo’s five screen.

“This is the latest and greatest,” Acosta said, “and I’m really glad and proud that Sheriff Carlos Bolanos made the investment.”

The Sheriff’s Office is the first agency in California to install the latest VirTra training technology. They are leasing it for $60,000 a year out of the agency’s budget, which Bolanos said “in today’s environment I think is a bargain.”

Bolanos, who is up for re-election, said the expectation of his department during an active shooting is to act immediately: “Our personnel are trained that during an active shooter incident, we’re going to enter immediately and neutralize the threat whatever it is. And I believe that this training is just one additional tool for my people to have everything available to them to immediately address a threat in the safest manner possible.”

Weidner shared the sheriff’s excitement of and confidence in the VirTra simulator. “We send people in,” he said. “We do not wait, get people away from the children, and trust me the rest of the world is coming.”