Safety is driving force for officers Training facility helps Md. police be better on road

September 20, 1998|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

A state police cruiser with lights flashing careened around a corner last week in Carroll County in pursuit of a tan Chevrolet, which had just run a red light at 40 mph. The cruiser's driver, Tfc. George Prager, suddenly had to swerve as the figure of a pedestrian came into view.

An officer following Prager wasn't so lucky. He hit the figure head-on -- a remote-controlled torso suspended from wires -- and spoiled the driver-training exercise at a new facility in Sykesville.

Several officers watching from a nearby knoll howled with

laughter, but they got the point: Don't follow too closely and don't focus your attention on any single object.

Prager's quick reaction was more than luck. He's an 11-year veteran with the Maryland State Police and was attending a three-day refresher course with 16 other officers at the Driver Training Facility on the grounds of the Springfield Hospital Center.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other state and local officials plan to attend the formal opening Tuesday of the Sykesville facility, the first law enforcement training complex for officers from throughout the state.

The facility, which includes an urban grid course, a highway tactical response course, a skills pad and skid pan, is the first phase of a $53 million project.

Plans for the complex include a firearms range, to be opened next summer, and renovation of historic buildings to provide 7,000 square feet for academic, residential and dining areas, and administrative needs.

To Lt. Albert L. Liebno Jr., the facility's administrator, and Steven Lurz, staff instructor, safety is the important issue.

Until now, police agencies have relied on 16 police academies throughout Maryland to train cadets. Except for Montgomery County, none has a bona fide driver training facility. Baltimore has used the parking lot at Memorial Stadium for training, said Lurz, who was in charge of driver training before retiring as a city officer.

Baltimore County trains its officers on a large shopping center parking lot, Anne Arundel officers travel to Capitol Raceway, and agencies on the Eastern Shore use an old airport runway, he said.

None has state-of-the-art driving simulators, a skid pan and a large highway tactical response course for intensive training, he said.

The course

The highway course is a 1-mile oval roadway, including a quarter-mile straightaway, for practicing high-speed pursuits. It can accommodate three simultaneous exercises and has a closed-circuit television system to allow remote observation or playback review.

The skills pad is lined with cones and designed to help officers develop a sense of where the four corners of their vehicles are in tight quarters, Liebno said.

The skid pan allows them to learn how to control skidding on wet and dry surfaces, whether it's caused by braking at high speeds or weather conditions.

In use since March, the facility has provided training for about 500, Lurz said. "Only two cars have been damaged, within 20 minutes of each other, and last week a motorcycle officer lost control and flipped over a guard rail, but he is going to be OK," Liebno said.

Trainees drive cars equipped with roll cages, and wear helmets and harnesses designed for extra safety on the highway course, he said.

"This whole setup and course is awesome," said Prager. "It's good to have the chance to relearn good driving habits."

Some agencies offer their recruits little or no driver training, he said.

Michael Pianpiano, a 10-year veteran officer from Laurel, began his career with the District of Columbia police force and received no high-speed driver training.

"This has given me the chance to evaluate my driving skills, something I have never really been able to do," he said. "This is great. It's fun to practice without the stress of knowing there may be a felony stop at the end of the chase."

The cost of the training facility will be paid by Justice Department funds and from court fees paid by traffic violators. No tax revenue will be used to pay for the project, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Law enforcement officials believe the center will meet future needs for the state's more than 21,000 public safety professionals and help reduce law enforcement motor vehicle accidents, saving taxpayers the resulting cost in lives, injuries, lost productivity, legal fees and repairs.

Using accident figures from 1990 to 1992, the state Police and Correctional Training Commissions lobbied for construction of the training center.

Insurance claims

During that three-year period, 17 people were killed in Maryland in motor vehicle collisions involving police.

Nationally, in emergency responses, an average of 292 people died each year since 1980, according to the commissions.

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