Case Study: DVD hits the Mark
Posted Mar 1, 2002

March 2002 | For law enforcement personnel, proper training is more than a matter of protocol; in many cases, it's the difference between life and death. So it's no small task to ensure the consistent and comprehensive education of the criminal investigators and uniformed police officers who serve the more than 75 partner organizations of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. (Partner agencies include Congress, the Supreme Court, and select organizations of the Departments of Defense, Justice, and State, as well as independent agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Postal Service.)

Established in 1970 and headquartered in Glynco, Georgia, FLETC serves as the federal government's official provider of law enforcement research, training, and education. Twelve divisions—including behavioral sciences, enforcement operations, and security specialties—function together to provide students with the skills and knowledge required to serve and protect the general public. Each year, more than 25,000 rookie and veteran law enforcement personnel participate in dozens of basic, advanced, and specialized training programs that immerse them in the full range of criminal situations they may encounter throughout their careers.

In addition to providing a practical exercise area and teaching laboratories, FLETC features a distributed learning studio, a computer resource learning center, and a library housing several DVD-equipped computers and eight DVD-ROM simulations (produced by FLETC's media support division) that allow students to practice their responses to a range of scenarios.

One of FLETC's oldest computer-based training programs is Situational Awareness and Response (SAR), a "shoot-don't shoot" training exercise conceived and developed for laserdisc in the early 1990s. Originally intended for use in basic training courses, SAR serves as an introduction to situational response techniques and a refresher for more advanced students, says Jack Loomis, senior instructor in FLETC's firearms division. "SAR was meant to be a building block to get students thinking about situational response," he explains. "A lot of students were having trouble comprehending the concepts we were trying to teach. We thought CBT was a viable solution because it would allow students to go through sample scenarios, make mistakes, and learn the process of safely managing threatening situations. We don't require the program in any of our courses, but we do recommend it as a primer to help students understand and master the concepts."

At the heart of situational response mastery is knowing when it's appropriate to draw or fire a weapon, to call for backup, or to reason with a suspect. Consequently, the title's action bar features six buttons that produce independent responses, including "Gun," which draws a weapon; "Move," which places the user in a location of his or her choosing; "Verbal," which directs the user to communicate with the suspect or other people in the scenario; "NLCT," which directs the user to employ non-lethal control techniques (such as a night stick); "Shoot," which fires the gun; and "Phone," which directs the user to call for backup. The scenario progresses based on the student's response to each decision point. If the trainee makes a bad decision, an intermediary intervenes and encourages him or her to try a different approach; the action will not progress further until the user makes the appropriate choice in an allotted period of time. A scoring summary at the end of the scenarios tabulates the user's success at each decision point and highlights skills that require additional attention.

"We did a lot of elaborate programming in the original development phase because we wanted to be able to see which choices students were having trouble with," recalls Randy Meeker, a producer/director in FLETC's media support division. "That way, we could adjust our teaching techniques to cover certain topics differently. At the time, we were breaking new ground with interactive video. By 1999, though, the technology had changed and we wanted to keep up. That's what led us to DVD.

"We also liked the ease of operation, portability, and compactness that DVD would offer," Meeker continues. "What we found in the conversion process, though, was that it was like inventing the program all over again. The major elements, controlling mechanisms, and programming are all the same, but it had to be totally redone using tools we didn't have."

Enter PowerTrain, a Landover, Maryland-based company that specializes in the design and production of interactive multimedia training programs for government and commercial clients. Founded in 1994, PowerTrain has produced customized training for the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others. The company won the contract—which called for the conversion of SAR to DVD-ROM for a firm, fixed rate of less than $25,000—after responding to a "request for quote" issued by FLETC through the Graduate School of the USDA, a continuing education institution that caters to government employees.

After an initial meeting with FLETC, the PowerTrain development team—consisting of vice president/multimedia specialist Todd Yoder and a graphics artist—set to work. The project, which required two months of continuous labor and another four months of tweaking, began with the digitization of the original BetaCam videotape into separate video clips using Adobe Premiere. The clips also were tested and edited in Premiere, then converted to MPEG-2 using Ligos LSX-MPEG for computer playback.

Because SAR was originally written in ToolBook for Windows 3.1, Yoder next had to reprogram the courseware using Macromedia's Authorware for Windows 98. The original source code also was examined in order to define the functional aspects of the training and to build a list of videodisc frames. PowerTrain next developed a more modern graphical user interface, including screen layout, buttons, and data-reporting features, then authored all elements in Authorware.

Though the foundation of the DVD version and all of the major elements it was to contain were already in place, the conversion itself was anything but simple, Yoder recalls. "In those days, the DVD-ROM format was in its infancy," he says. "Recorders cost at least $5,000, and the blank discs were $40 apiece."

What's more, the technology wasn't entirely stable. "After our first deliverable, PowerTrain discovered that the DVD-ROM would exhibit sporadic reading and loading problems on some computers, including FLETC's new laptops," he continues. "Some would read part of the disc, then stop; others wouldn't ‘see' the disc at all. Also, some computers, depending on CPU speed and memory, are not up to the task of rendering full-motion digital video, so I had to create two separate versions of the MPEG-2 digital video files with different data rates. One was set for a lower-speed (under 340mHz) CPU, and the other was set for faster processors. I then put logic into the program to test the CPU speed every time the program is run, and to set flags to play the video appropriate to the CPU speed."

Even then, much of the testing phase was a matter of trial and error. "PowerTrain had access to only one DVD-Recorder, so the only solution was to keep burning discs and test them out. A lot of the development process involved trying multiple video-delivery methods, waiting for new Microsoft DirectX drivers, and basically trying everything possible to improve the program's reliability with MPEG-2 playback. Eventually, we ended up with a few discs that worked in FLETC's computers," Yoder explains. "The only other ‘fix' would have been to do a production run of DVD-ROMs at a replication facility, but the cost was prohibitive for such a low quantity." (FLETC maintains a small supply of SAR DVDs in its library for student use and check-out, but does not distribute the title directly to students.)

Despite the development challenges, FLETC was ultimately so pleased with the DVD version of SAR that it began converting other training titles to DVD. "One of the main goals for me, as an instructor, is to make training programs available to students to use on their own computers at their own pace," says Loomis. "With DVD, they have instant access, so they don't have to take the time to go to our learning laboratory. Eventually, we want to issue DVD-enabled laptops to all of our students."

"We're looking at gearing future projects to DVD exclusively," adds Larry Hedman, branch chief for TV, graphics, and animation in FLETC's media support division. "DVD's ability to support multiple, complex branching makes it very conducive to the types of training programs we are commissioned to develop."

Certainly, the events of September 11 will expedite that process, as FLETC expects to train up to 38,000 students this year—an increase of 52 percent from 2001. "Almost every federal agency is in hiring mode right now, and that will affect the way we instruct and the media we use to do it," Hedman continues. "As the student body at FLETC continues to increase in size, we will re-examine the technology we have to determine the best way to handle that growth. But technology will always be a tool for us, whether it's DVD or whatever comes next."

(Federal Law Enforcement Training Center www.fletc.gov. PowerTrain www.powertrain.com.)