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Taking aim at border security

As Canada moves to arm all its border security officers by 2016, Chilliwack is becoming a training hub.
Dan Desai

When Canada Border Services officer Lori Bowcock was shot and wounded during a border incident four weeks ago, classes at the CBSA’s training facility in Chilliwack were cut short.

Continuing the scenario-based firearms training while a colleague was being airlifted to hospital, wasn’t an option, said Dan Desai, the facility’s chief of training and learning. Instead, students were sent home, counseling made available, and instructors gathered in the lounge to watch newscasts.

“It was like an attack on a member of our family,” explained Brian McKenna, use-of-force instructor at the Chilliwack centre.

Bowcock – shot in the neck at the Peace Arch crossing by a man who then turned the gun on himself – survived the incident.

But in Chilliwack, it brought home the deadly seriousness of the training that almost 50 Canada Border Service officers undergo daily at Canada Education Park.

The firearms training is relatively new. It’s only been six years since the federal government allowed Canadian border guards to carry firearms – a reflection of the agency’s changing role, and the complexities of international affairs following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then Canada has embarked on a program to train and equip all its officers by 2016.

The Chilliwack facility is responsible for training and recertifying officers from across the province. The program consists of two key components: control defensive tactics, and firearm training. The goal of both is to diffuse potentially serious situations, while maintaining officer safety at all times.

“We have to keep ourselves safe so we can keep the public safe,” said McKenna.

Training takes place in a couple of locations at Canada Education Park, which is also home to the University of the Fraser Valley, Justice Institute of B.C. and the RCMP’s Pacific Regional Training Centre. The sprawling main building houses a lecture theatre, classroom and administrative space, and areas where students can practice the physically demanding techniques of subduing resistant individuals.

The role of Canada Border Service personnel in the field is a complex one, Desai pointed out. While most people may only encounter officers at a border crossing, their duties take them far beyond that. The members, who carry the same authority as police, can be boarding vessels at sea, inspecting shipping containers at port, or apprehending individuals inland who are in Canada illegally.

In the three months between April and June of this year, the agency intercepted nearly $103 million in illegal dugs, most of it cocaine. It also confiscated 140 firearms and nearly 2,000 weapons of other types. CBSA officers removed from Canada nearly 4,000 people, denied entry to another 14,291, and recovered seven missing children.

It’s that diversity that makes Canada Border Services such a dynamic profession, said Desai.

It’s also what makes the training so important.

Students at the Chilliwack facility train for real-life situations, sometimes using a virtual world. The “Professional Range Instructor Simulator,” or PRISim, uses screen projections, lasers, and a computer interface to create scenarios that test student reaction and judgement. The scenarios, written to reflect real CBSA incidents, help students analyze threats and react appropriately – all in a split second.

Just as important, the students have to then explain what they did and why.

“The articulation of the decision-making process is very important,” Desai said.

The system may look like a giant video game, but there is nothing playful about the training.

The weapons used are exactly like the weapons officers carry in the field – a semiautomatic Beretta – only they fire a beam of light instead of a bullet. It has the same weight, the same feel. And students are expected to treat it exactly as they would a operating firearm. The idea, said Desai, is to build the “muscle memory” so proper handling becomes instinctive.

“The technique needs to be second nature,” he says.

Not all the training is done in a virtual setting. Scenario-based training also takes place in a nearby vacant building that has been modified to reflect situations the students will encounter. Here, the handguns fire f/x charges, while instructors watch and grade from observation platforms above.

Live-fire training takes place in a recently constructed indoor firing range. “It’s an amazing piece of technology,” said Desai. The facility, made from repurposed steel shipping containers, is virtually sound proof from the outside.

Inside, the eerie stillness is barely broken by the sharp report of a firearm. Bullet-proof glass separates the range from the control room where the instructor watches and evaluates.

The students are marked for more than just accuracy. “There are dozens and dozens of aspects they are being judged and evaluated on at the range,” said Desai, including their demeanor, attitude and overall weapon handling.

The firearm may be the sharp end of the stick in the CBSA arsenal, but it isn’t the only tool at the officers, disposal, McKenna emphasizes. Key to the overall training is matching the threat to a response. “Our job isn’t to shoot people,” he said, “it’s to remove the threat.

Often the officer’s best weapon is an ability communicate, counsel, and calm a dangerous situation. “We’re really good at talking to people,” he said.