The dispatcher's voice on the radio was calm and business-like.
"Brown County, attention all units. We have a report of a carjacking — armed carjacking. Suspect vehicle is a green Jeep Cherokee."
Brown County Sheriff's deputy Shade Tidwell punched the accelerator of his Ford Crown Victoria patrol car and steered through a downtown area. Businesses and buildings whizzed past his windows. Traffic was light but Tidwell scanned intersections as he approached them.
"I'm behind a green Jeep right now," Tidwell radioed. " … one-twenty-seven, Brownwood. I believe this is gonna be it. … turning left on Wall Street."
"Brown County, attention all units," the dispatcher radioed moments later. "One-twenty-seven in pursuit — green Jeep Cherokee traveling south of Wall Street."
It was all a simulation, including the radio calls between Tidwell and simulator and training specialist Don Courtney.
Tidwell, under Courtney's direction, drove a simulator that was set up much like the cockpit of a law enforcement patrol car. Large computer screens in front and to each side provided a landscape and streetscape — complete with other traffic, buildings and pedestrians — that replicated what Tidwell would have seen had he actually been driving.
Courtney works for the Texas Association of Counties, the organization that owns the simulator. It's housed in a 45-foot-long trailer that Courtney brought to Brownwood and parked outside the Law Enforcement Center.
The trailer contains two simulators — one that replicates a patrol car and another that replicates a large truck that would be driven by county employees who operate dump trucks and other large vehicles. The trailer also contains a computerized workspace for Courtney. In that workspace, Courtney can watch his own monitors that show what his students are doing. He can drop in inclement conditions including bad weather, fog, dust and blowouts. He can drop other vehicles and pedestrians into the scenarios.
Courtney, a former Eastland County deputy, said he's been a simulator instructor for nine years.
"It's all about training," Courtney said. "We kill more law enforcement officers every year with vehicles than we do with gunfire. Anything I can do with training to give somebody the extra edge they need … "
If officers are involved in accidents, Courtney said, it hurts the county's budget and opens the possibility of lawsuits.
Courtney gave classroom instruction to deputies Monday, and deputies entered the trailer — a couple at a time — for simulator driving. Tidwell and sheriff's investigator Robert Ramirez quickly noted that the simulator resembled a Ford Crown Victoria. Tidwell joked that it couldn't be a real "Crown Vic" because the simulator's odometer indicated an unrealistically low 35,000 miles.
Courtney had deputies start out on non-threatening practice runs so they could try to get used to the feel of the accelerator, brake and extremely sensitive steering wheel.
Next deputies took a "defensive driving" run in which they had to watch out for other vehicles who nearly caused collisions — and sometimes, the collisions occurred. All simulated, of course, and deputies yelped after realizing they'd just been suckered by an unsafe motorist into a collision.
"Brown County, attention all units," Courtney radioed to begin Ramirez's pursuit run. "We have report of bank robbery — armed bank robbery. Suspect vehicle — purple Toyota pickup."
"Brownwood, we're crossing Wall Street …" Ramirez radioed.
After the deputies completed their driving, Ramirez said the simulator had been fun, but "kind of nerve-racking at first."
"Makes you think, huh?" Courtney said.
"It really does," Ramirez replied.
Tidwell described the simulator experience as "awesome."
"It was pretty intense," Tidwell said. "It was as close as you could actually get without being the real thing. With the radio and everything, it was pretty life-like, having to slow down at intersections."