A most realistic mock course

When the Virginia State Police (VSP) received grant monies from a federal seizure case, they considered how they might utilize the funds. Hiring was out of the question, but grant conditions stipulated the money could be used for capital improvement.

For years, the agency lacked dedicated space for improving on-the-road training and techniques for officers. Virginia troopers-in-training learned the ropes on abandoned airport runways or within a federal training facility in nearby Maryland. Since driving is a large part of the job for state troopers (and often a dangerous one at that) construction of a driver training facility seemed the way to go.

“We do have some [officers]...from time to time get hurt,” says Ronald Rice, program director with Virginia State Police. “What we’ve been using has been sort of makeshift up until now. This was built from the ground-up.”

The brand new complex is impressive. Constructed just outside the Town of Blackstone, Va., it is adjacent to the Fort Pickett campus—an army base that was closed by the Department of Defense but is still used by national guards and several branches of the U.S. military for training.

Setting the course

Parts of the track look like something out of a scenic car commercial, and the beauty and variety of Virginia’s natural landscape certainly plays its part. The 342,000 square foot precision course boasts a variety of road configurations for the department’s mix of Fords and Chevrolets.

Although parts flow through wooded areas where cruisers can kick up plenty of mud, large stretches of course also imitate highways and even urban areas laid out in city blocks. No detail was spared. A driver might encounter railroad crossings, five-point stops, a cloverleaf ramp, cul-de-sacs, alleys, dead ends, T-turns, and roundabouts. There are even (prop) cars parked on (prop) side streets. Says Ken Wagner, the project manager for Dewberry, the company tasked with designing the facility: “The trainer doesn’t know that they (the parked cars) are there until they make the turn.”

Four-and-a-half miles of track are dedicated to high-speed pursuit training. Because the roads are sometimes part concrete and part asphalt—with the occasional mock bridge thrown in—drivers can perfect maneuvers in various speeds, on various surfaces.

“And then there are also loop roads and interchanges, and different areas where cars can sit and wait and then pull out to chase someone,” says Wagner.

Finally, an observation tower at the highest point in the center of the track allows instructors to watch students as they navigate the course.

The course itself sounds impressive...and fast. “So far it’s a learning curve for us,” says Rice. “A lot of thought and planning went into the design of the facility, especially the track. We looked at a lot of other ones to see what they did right and what they would like to change.”

For example, they saw a skidpan in Tennessee and got inspired; the unit is a beast of a training aid. In 25,000 square feet of pan, a driver might try their hand at maintaining control on an icy, slushy road or any other inclement condition experienced in nature. The skidpan has its own self-contained water system, such that all water on the skidpan is recycled.

“We want the training to be as practical as possible, and yet we don’t want the cars wrecking like crazy, either,” says Rice. With all those vehicles experiencing continual wear and tear it’s only right to have an on-site gas station (with permitting for an underground tank) and maintenance garage. Still, “these cars do get tore up a bit,” he admits. “We can do some minor repairs on-site like brakes, change tires...that type of thing.”

On-road and off

Equal consideration was given to non-track elements. The expansive building has 60 squad rooms, on-site dining facilities, sleeping facilities, offices and meeting space. Classroom instruction will make use of the latest technology to compliment drive time, as most rooms have extensive audio/visual systems, video conferencing and live-video training.

In addition, sophisticated simulation systems allow a trainee to feel as if he or she is zipping between cars, or swerving to avoid hitting a child who has run out in front. The Doron 550 LE Interactive Driving Simulation Systems used by the VSP are modeled to look and feel like the inside of a police cruiser. Students can get their feet wet in a controlled state before swerving to avoid the mock pedestrians.

The building has full emergency power, in addition to its own water treatment and sewage treatment, and will serve as a backup site for department State Police Continuous Operations and Facilities should something ever happen to the main headquarters. Rice says it is also set to be used as an alternative emergency operations center for state police.

“We definitely have more space,” says Rice (which must be somewhat of an improvement over training on abandoned airfields). “We’ve gone to every measure we can think of to make it safe, but still practical to use.” He adds that other agencies are free to use the brand new course and complex.

Now the only thing left to do is move in and drive.