Laser play

I rounded a corner and suddenly I was in the middle of a bazaar; a market selling rugs and fruit, and I noticed ancient script scrawled on old-looking walls. Beyond the market was a modest house…empty, but its contents suggested a family lived there.

It was clear I was somewhere in the Middle East, or so it seemed. Upon closer inspection, I thought this could be a sound stage on a Hollywood lot and all the actors were on break.

In reality I was in Waukesha, Wisconsin at a brand new laser tag iCOMBAT facility, where officials had just cut the tape on “Battlefield Baghdad;” according to the website: “A realistic tactical laser tag experience using state-of-the-art equipment and fully immersible Hollywood style sets.” On the entertainment side, thrill seekers can rent out the venue for parties, fund-raisers or Saturday-night flings. Players can earn ranks for completing missions and objectives, similar to a video game. Realistic weaponry and laser combat gear offer easy set-up and multiple sensor locations that light up and beep when hit. Sounds, smells and ambient lighting make players feel as though they’re really on the streets of Baghdad on a dark and stormy night.

But it’s not all kids’ play; the more than 12,000-square-foot structures (currently popping up in various locales across the country) might be worth looking into on the public safety side, too. The buildings’ generous size and resources offer trainers something different, as well as a safe place for cops to train in a real world environment…so to speak.

Thomas Hausner, a 30-year SWAT veteran, works with iCOMBAT management on the law enforcement end. He says iCOMBAT looks to provide “the entertainment aspect to augment the law enforcement/military training aspect.” It’s not always easy for SWAT teams to find a place to train. Vacant buildings come and go, and weather is unpredictable at best. “When it’s -40 with a wind chill factor, it’s nice to be in a controlled environment,” Hausner says. “Because if you’re worrying about whether or not you’re staying warm, you’re not worrying about your training.”

Another benefit of the all-in-one setup is the departure from old-school laser tag paraphernalia. Hausner likes the realistic weight and feel of the armory, which consists of irTactical systems. The weapons system was designed after the Glock handgun and M4 rifle. The irM4 is a 1:1 scale replica of the AR15/M16/M4 rifle used by law enforcement and militaries all over the world. “You’re not gearing up like Darth Vader for sims or Airsoft, where you either got hit or you didn’t; you know if you’re hit or you know if you’re not hit,” says Hausner. SmartMags power the irTactical weapons by using a CO2 cartridge to create live noise and recoil. SmartMags also keep track of ammunition and can be passed from player to player until the ammo runs out.

When I visited iCOMBAT, a local area SWAT team was engaged in a response drill in which they utilized a 5.11 breaching door and a breakable window. Suspects and victims played convincing roles, and at one point the lights dimmed and it began to storm.

Captain Frank McElderry at the Waukesha County (Wisc.) Sheriff’s Office was impressed with the initial run-through, adding that his SWAT team enjoyed the experience. “Stairwells are a good touch,” he said, “and having actual second levels (above the main area) where people can be up [observing] was pretty exciting for the guys who go through.

“I think the biggest thing was the opportunity to actually darken the place out; make it loud, make it dark, make it light…change up the environment. Just that adjustment alone gets them on a different level of thinking,” he says.

The building can also accommodate vehicles, and McElderry hopes to return someday and utilize the place for more regular patrol applications like room clearings, stairwells and vehicle assault.

When training ends, teams can review video from multiple cameras stationed throughout the premises. Says Hausner: “An officer can do something 7 or 8 times and in his mind he’s thinking, ‘No, I’m not [doing that].’ We’ve all been there.” Software keeps track of who got shot and where, as well as officers’ heart rates and stress levels.

McElderry adds that the iCOMBAT safety team—consisting of educated tactical instructors in their own right—were supportive, and handy, too. He didn’t have to bring in his own staff in order to get useful feedback on-site—an added bonus for small departments in particular.

“I think the most important thing I saw is that it’s a safe training facility for us, where we can come in, we get double-, triple-checked, we don’t have to worry about people coming up on us as we’re training on a asking us what we’re doing,” he says.

Andy Rasico, product manager for iCOMBAT, says he hopes to have law enforcement training paid for completely from entertainment-side profits by the end of the year, so agencies can eventually go through for free in their own communities.

Who says work can’t be fun (sometimes), too?