TERRE HAUTE —
Driving a police vehicle to an emergency scene isn’t as easy as it might appear.
That’s some first-hand knowledge from a seasoned journalist who has done her share of quickly responding to breaking news scenes — while driving within the boundaries of speed limits and traffic controls, of course.
As emergency responders know too well, just because the sirens are screaming and lights are flashing, that doesn’t mean that the motoring public comprises observant and careful drivers who get out of the way.
Police officers are trained to drive defensively at all times, especially when they are pursuing a vehicle or traveling to the scene of an emergency.
To stay sharp in their skills, officers are now required by state law to have continuing education with indoor and outdoor training.
For that reason, all deputies with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department received training l;ast week in an Emergency Vehicle Operation Course Simulator, parked in a mobile trailer outside the Vigo County Jail.
To demonstrate the skill it requires — and just for fun — Chief Deputy Clark Cottom and training Sgt. John Davis invited a Tribune-Star newspaper reporter (yours truly) and a photographer to steer the simulator through a vehicle pursuit.
“This has been a very, very popular training program,” Cottom said of the deputy reaction to the training. “They get the adrenaline flowing. The heart rate increases. It’s a safe way we can put officers in high-stress and otherwise dangerous situations.”
The simulator not only tests skills in pursuits, but also checks reactions to changing weather conditions, and mechanical failures such as tire blow-outs and loss of brakes.
State law allows officers to exceed the posted speed limit and proceed through traffic controls, Cottom said, but they must have “due regard for others” on the road, both pedestrians and motorists.
“We have to reinforce that when officers are going through with lights and sirens, they need to slow down and check for others,” Cottom said. “If we hurt others on our way to respond to an emergency, then what good are we doing? We are trying to prevent injuries and death.”
The simulator — rented for the week from EnMark Simulators of Bloomington — has a Crown Victoria dashboard and accompanying equipment, because that is the most commonly used police vehicle. Turning the ignition key and putting the car into gear places the “driver” into the simulated scenario, which plays out across three large video screens that dominate the view.
Cottom gave a quick warning — that some drivers get a bit “motion sick” because visually the driving seems real, but that does not translate to the driver’s inner ear, and that could result in some dizziness. (Yeah.)
And it is a noisy and somewhat distracting scenario. Just as police officers do, the driver must keep steering with the left hand while turning on the lights and sirens and talking on the radio with the right hand. Forget Texting While Driving! Try calling out street names and directions while keeping a fleeing vehicle in view, all while watching for — ahem — “idiot drivers” who pull out in front of you, or who panic and stop in your way!
“This happens all the time for us,” Cottom said, referring to traffic that just continues merrily through intersections in front of the approaching officer — despite the warning sirens and lights.
“A lot of the time, as officers we will hear our own siren, and not hear others,” Cottom said. “That’s why we will change our tone as we approach an intersection, to let others know we are entering.”
With Davis operating the control computer, setting up the scenario and giving advance notice on what action was coming, it wasn’t too difficult to drive through the streets, avoiding hazards and cutting through parking lots.
Until the big yellow taxi crashed into the passenger side of my car!
Who failed to slow and check the intersection for unobservant drivers? Me!
But I had my siren blaring!
Then let’s try that again. … Okay, I avoided the taxi. I (But I memorized his number and he’s getting at least a phone call later!) And I slowed at each of the next intersections, which the fleeing motorist also has to do to avoid drivers who don’t appreciate his decision to flee. And when he (my own gender bias for the “bad guy”) finally does stop, I position my car behind him and to the left so I can take cover behind the police car’s engine block if he decides to jump out and start shooting at me. (Really? Why would anyone shoot at me? I carry only a notebook and an ink pen.)
But as Cottom notes, police officers are not always sure who they are trying to pull over, and what that person is thinking.
“A traffic stop for an expired license plate can quickly turn into a high-speed pursuit,” he said. When that happens, an officer must use his or her judgment on when to end a pursuit because of the danger to the public, the offender and the officer.
“A lot of times, we’ll discontinue our pursuit,” he said. “We teach in class when officers need to discontinue pursuit.”
Usually, the officer has already recorded the vehicle’s license plate and description, so the offending motorist only delays an inevitable arrest in the future.
The training simulation was a fun and lesson-filled event. Cottom said that VCSD rented the simulator from EnMark at a cost of $4,500. The cost is covered by the fees charged for crash reports, which are earmarked by law for training purposes.
“We have a little bit better training budget than other departments,” Cottom said, “so that is why we included the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department and West Terre Haute Police this week to go through this training with us.”
In the summer, the outdoor emergency road training will be conducted at Hulman Field, where deputies can do live high-speed driving on the runway.
Hopefully, a certain reporter will be invited to continue her emergency scenario training as well.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.