Virtual experience
Virtual experience

Nov 1, 2000 12:00 PM

Prison control room operators are challenged by lifelike scenarios.

The future for training British prison control room operators has been unveiled. The British prison service and digital recording manufacturer Primary Image have designed a training tool that uses the latest in digital technology.

Control room operators in Great Britain are required to attend regular training sessions at the HMP Prison Service College, Warwickshire, England. In addition to receiving training at their "home" sites, they are required to attend the college on a regular basis to monitor their skills and progression.

During training, the officers study in typical classroom conditions, and must pass written and oral examinations. The trainees also undertake role-play activities - tackling realistic scenarios - within a control room environment. The operators must demonstrate good interaction and organizational skills, and a thorough understanding of prison service procedures.

Previously, staff role-played in makeshift surroundings with minimal, outdated equipment. The opening of the new control room provided a "virtual reality"-style simulator with state-of-the-art equipment on which to train and educate the officers in a fictional prison environment.

Students work in groups of four. Each student has a workstation, comprised of a PC showing a prison map, pinpointing where alarm triggers and cameras are located. Each student also has a telephone, headset, radio transmitter and access to other equipment. In front of their workstations are two banks of 12 monitors. One group of monitors shows images from the cameras located outside the prison buildings; the other 12 monitors show images such as corridors and recreation areas from inside the buildings.

Between the two banks of monitors is a large map of the prison site - HMP Lowmoor, a fictional prison - comprised of elements of existing UK prisons.

Attached to this room is a smaller observation room from which the trainer can monitor pupils' behavior, and overhear dialogue among the students. This additional room is the site from which simulated scenarios are generated onto the control room monitors. In a training situation, pupils view the monitors, using familiar technology, to view events both indoors and on the grounds of the prison.

At some point in the role-play, the teacher triggers a series of events to test the students' skills, whether an escape attempt, an assault on a guard, or a riot situation. Students must react to these events as quickly and efficiently as possible. The event evolves according to how students deal with the situation, i.e. by deploying the right resources or telephoning the right services. If students are successful in curtailing the incident, scenes reflect the event resolving itself. If they are unsuccessful, screens show the prisoner escaping or assaulting the officer, or a riot beginning.

The Technology Staging these attempts for real would be far too demanding of manpower and resources. If videotape were used, escape attempts would have to come to the same conclusion each time. Instead, the whole process is executed using digital technology. In a system designed and developed by Primary Image, a loop frame store holds pictures of "no activity" and displays these on the monitors - effectively on freeze-frame. A PTZ camera is also usable, with little difference from the pre-recorded footage. When the control room trainer decides to trigger an event, the pre-recorded footage goes into action. Thanks to the built-in multiplexer, the trainer can switch among scenarios quickly and easily.

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