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Taking aim in Braselton

FBI training site readies agents for dangerous situations

POSTED: March 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN | The Times/

FBI agents run into the shoot house Thursday at the beginning of a training drill at the Braselton facility.

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BRASELTON — The FBI knows how to make an entrance.

Agents burst through the door of the training facility in Braselton, and the concussion of the grenade-like "flash-bang" shakes the catwalk above where a safety officer watches the men spread out through the ceiling-less house.

"The shock and awe is very real," Special Agent Stephen Emmett said during a training exercise Thursday at the shoot house.

Life-sized photographs hang from the walls — a man in overalls holding a gun, a pregnant woman aiming a pistol, a fearful resident holding a cell phone, a guy hiding beside the couch in the living room. The agents have seconds to make a decision to pull the trigger.

"We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing at the right time," said Lou Solis, assistant chief of the Braselton Police Department and a former Army Ranger.

SWAT agents from all over Georgia use the shoot house at least once a month. There were five agents from the Gainesville resident agency practicing at the shoot house on Thursday.

The FBI built the shoot house in September 2007 with $350,000 in federal funds.

"It was a fluke that we got together," Solis said. He happened to be talking to an agent who said the FBI was looking for a place to build a shoot house, and Solis suggested they build it in Braselton. The FBI met with the town administration a few times and sealed the deal, which is a huge opportunity for Braselton to step up training of its own officers.

The FBI has plans to add a separate classroom for the shoot house and to expand the town’s firing range. The firing range is already being used by up to 25 agencies, including federal and local agencies from as far away as Peachtree City. By summer, the shoot house could be available for other agencies to use, Solis said.

Prior to the Braselton shoot house opening, the closest shoot houses were in Miami and Quantico, Va., at the FBI Academy. Traveling out of state was an added burden for the agents because SWAT is not their full-time job. They have cases to work, as well.

"This is so much easier for day-to-day operations," Senior Team Leader Dave Olcott said.

The entire house is made of a specific steel used for live-fire exercises. The two layers of steel are covered with rubber matting, so the agents can hang targets for training.

"What makes that building special is the ammo that you use," Solis said.

Frangible bullets turn to powder on impact. There’s no chance that they will ricochet off the walls and hurt someone during training. But considering the velocity of the rounds coming from a semiautomatic M-4 with a 10-inch barrel, they are still dangerous.

"If these guys got hit with these frangible rounds, they’d be hurting," Emmett said.

The Braselton Police Department also has frangible ammunition for their pistols, so they can re-enact patrol stops and suspect interviews using the weapons they carry daily.

It’s impossible to exactly replicate reality for training purposes. The targets don’t shoot back. It’s not always so easy to break down the door. The concussion of the distraction device would be louder and the air filled with more smoke in a house with ceilings, and there’s worry that the carpet or other objects in the room could catch fire.

To keep the adrenaline pumping, Olcott moves the targets around, puts up new targets and uses different points of entry.

"It keeps it fresh so the guys are always thinking," Olcott said.

Olcott said the team has been called into action 25 times in a two-year period, or about once a month. He said it’s impossible to put a value on the benefit of having a local facility.

"It’s a tool you can’t measure because of the training opportunity you have," Olcott said.



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