Effects of Immersive Simulation Training on First Responders: Perspectives from a DET Graduate

Joy VerPlanck PortraitAs law enforcement officers move between their intense, simulator-based training sessions and back into their regular duties, research into the body’s adrenal reactions during and right after training suggests that the parasympathetic nervous system must be “reset,” enabling trainees to avoid additional stress or, over the long term, PTSD or moral trauma. 

Thus, at the intersection of technology-enriched training and innovative approaches to engage law enforcement officers in a realistic learning environment, we find opportunities to rethink how first responders can benefit from this form of educational technology, while maintaining their body’s ability to engage its ‘fight-or-flight’ response when needed.

“When first responders train for crisis, the simulation must mimic chaos with intense realism or else the trainee may lack the muscle-memory necessary to perform under pressure,” states Dr. Joy VerPlanck, a 2020 graduate of the Doctorate in Educational Technology program. 

“Integrating various technologies together, like simulation and gaming, can create a holistic training environment where learning becomes a complete cycle, returning the trainee to a physiological state ready to react.”

In a three-part series of blog posts — co-authored with Noël Lipana, DSW of Quiet Terrain, LLC, and Yael Swerdlow of Maestro Games, SPC — Dr. VerPlanck suggests that highly-realistic video images combined with graphic overlays and violent sound effects can create opportunities which set physiological processes into action.

While we realize that representational fidelity is of the utmost importance in preparing military and first responders for the intense realities of their jobs, it is also clear that stress encountered in training can be as significant to the nervous system as stress encountered in crises. The result of training should be preparedness for the job, and confidence that they will be able to respond appropriately when mobilized. The result should not include symptoms of overtraining, which can happen if training cycles fail to allow for time to calm the nerves.

Put another way, Dr. VerPlanck suggests the following: “While the nature of immersive training is harmless, leaving the training loop open and maintaining a physiological state of high alert may result in lingering effects that can impact the body in ways similar to PTSD and moral trauma.” The nature of immersive training should incorporate ways to return the body to a state of readiness. Resilience can be accomplished with educational technology when it is incorporated in the training process.

Dr. VerPlanck’s dissertation research led to the conclusion that simulator training has potential to affect the learner’s ability to effectively de-escalate crises from a cognitive load and creative thinking aspect. She looks forward to continuing research relating to the use of simulators to create effective and comprehensive training programs for military and law enforcement. 

To find out more about this work, explore her three-part “Train As You Fight!” series, including “The Need For Real Faces In Immersive Training,” “The Hidden Impact Of Real Faces In Immersive Training,” and “Closing The Loop In Immersive Training.”

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Dr. Joy VerPlanck earned her Doctorate in Educational Technology at Central Michigan University and serves as the Military Programs Manager at MILO Range Training Systems. She previously served in the US Army as a Military Police officer. To contact Dr. VerPlanck, please email her at <joy@milorange.com>.

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