When the call for help comes in, sheriff’s deputies have to travel narrow and congested roads to get to the family that needs help or the business that’s been burglarized.
They’ve got to get to the scene quickly but avoid neighborhood children or motorists who might not see or hear them coming and pull out in front of them.
If a driver decides to flee instead of stop when being pulled over, the stakes get even higher.
Each year, deputies go through emergency response driving training, but the time away from their normal duties of responding to calls or investigating crimes adds up, as the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office typically has trained on a course set up in Bartholomew County. The vehicles get worn down too, considering the quick acceleration, swerving and braking that is a part of the training, Sheriff Doug Cox said.
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Not this year.
Cox leased a driving simulator for a week that put sheriff’s deputies behind the wheel of a virtual vehicle, complete with an ignition, lights, similar handling of the type of vehicle each deputy uses and a million unexpected scenarios and dangers around every corner.
“This is not a replacement for real life, but it helps you formulate a game plan,” said Lt. Mike Rogier, an advanced emergency vehicle operations instructor. He was one of the training officers calling the shots as the deputies went through the courses. He could make it snow, be foggy or rainy, and gave constant reminders to drivers to not out-drive their lights or sirens.
After each driver got accustomed to how the vehicle handled, the real tests began. While driving through a neighborhood, a dog darts out in front of you and a pedestrian walks across the road. On a multi-lane street, a vehicle decides to do a u-turn right in front of the emergency vehicle. The sheriff’s deputy needs to get through a busy intersection while other motorists have the green light.
The training also included pursuing a suspect who had fired a shot at a security guard and took off from a business, fleeing police in a mini-van on city streets. Once the pursuit ended, the deputy had to have a plan for checking on possibly injured bystanders and taking the shooter, who is possibly injured from a crash, into custody.
Rogier issues the constant reminders to steer to where the obstacle came from, rather than the direction it is going, look to where you want to be, rather than just at the front of the vehicle, and get a feel for how quickly you can turn back after swerving so you don’t lose control.
If you’ve come across an accident scene and thought that the police cars, fire trucks and ambulances were parked all over the area, Rogier has an explanation. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies work to block in an accident scene to protect victims and so that emergency responders can work without being at risk due to passing vehicles, while leaving room for ambulances and fire trucks to park next to each other since crews from those vehicles work together, he said.
The simulator, housed in a semi-trailer, includes three large screens and virtual mirrors to offer as close to a real-life scenario as possible, and the lessons could apply to any driver navigating the roads and interstate of Johnson County. Never stare at an obstacle, Rogier said. Instead, look at where you need to be headed. Find your path and follow it, he said.
“Anyone can go straight fast,” Rogier said. “If you crash, you’ll never get there.”