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Foam Sweet Foam: The Bullet-Eating Furniture Used to Prepare for Active Shooters

In a video essay, two filmmakers explore the 'kill houses' where SWAT teams train, where one patented technology blurs the line between fake and real.

by Jillian Mayer and Kelly Loudenberg
Sep 18 2018, 1:00pm

The practice of public safety depends upon a surfeit of simulation—simulated raids, fake houses, and special furniture designed to take a bullet. In a new video essay, Kelly Loudenberg and Jillian Mayer of Borscht Corp—filmmakers and artists and friends of Motherboard—explore this soft but dangerous terrain, where nothing’s really real but the gunfire.

— The Ed.

In an area just outside of Forsyth, Georgia, a team of firefighters fan flames spewing from a 10-story tall building. Just around the corner, police lock down a high school being terrorized by a gunman. In a nearby lake, divers search for the body of a twelve year old boy as a bomb squad, in 60 lbs. worth of protective gear, trudge past on their way to detonate an ISIL-planted bomb.

Elsewhere this would signal the apocalypse, but at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, it’s just another day. At 1,000 acres—comprising most of the town’s northwest municipal district—the facility offers “the state’s most comprehensive advanced and specialized training programs” for law enforcement, a vast stage where officers-in-training play out every disaster imaginable.

When I visit, in the summer of 2016, the fake high school where the mock mass shooting is being staged sits at the far end of “YourTown,” a fictitious village comprised of two crisscrossing avenues lined with an apartment complex, a bank, a convenience store, a gas station, and a drug den—or what one police officer referred to as the “crack house.”

These buildings are designed inside and out to look and feel authentic. Within the drug den, you’ll find needles on the floor, a wheelchair beside a stained mattress, and a Goodwill green velour couch. At the corner of Hazardous Place and Dangerous Boulevard sits a building that serves as both a mom and pop grocery and a gas station. Nearby stands a tall pole with a large Gulf sign, several rusty gas pumps, and a phone booth.

The Reality Based Training Association (RBTA), an advocacy group, proposes that these simulacra are the best way to prepare officers for future situations, “to approximate in a training setting any situation that might occur in an operational setting,” the group says on its website. As one officer told me, these simulation techniques allow “the brain and body to absorb and process the experience as if it were actually occurring.”

This practice trickles down to every aspect of the training. In most scenarios that require gunfire, rifles are loaded with dye-filled “simunition,” or paint-based simulated ammunition. This insures that “shot” officers feel a painful sting without getting killed. Some training, though, requires the use of live fire weapons. Where YourTown’s Elm Street ends, the firearms complex begins, which includes multiple shooting ranges, and an open-air shoot house.

This Crime Scene Range—or “kill house” as it’s sometimes referred to—looks like a nondescript motel or strip mall building, and is made up of three bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, a catwalk, and a hallway. Unlike the common construction materials and furniture that make up most of YourTown’s structures, the house is constructed from ballistic rubber and furnished with specially made props crafted out of a foam-based material. This gives officers a large multitude of structural props needed to construct several complex shooter scenarios with what the Center’s website describes as “maximum realism.” It’s with these designer training tools that officers play out the circumstances of a dystopian future—from the ubiquitous threat of terrorism to urban warfare—that the media has termed “the new normal.”

A Minnesota-based company called Range Systems specializes in constructing the shoot houses as well as supplying the foam furniture. These uncanny objects—plush placeholders of domesticity—are ricochet- and fragmentation-proof, mold resistant, and designed to withstand deadly live ammunition. Using recycled rubber and a proprietary binding composition, the company has “developed and patented a manufacturing process for creating the most effective ballistic rubber in the industry,” it says on its website. “Each furniture piece is heavy enough to stay in place, yet light enough for easy positioning or transport,” it says.

The bullet-eating material has been tested and approved for use by U.S. Army Special Forces, Range says, and at least three federal or state agencies a month buy “a fair amount of foam furniture” in both the US and Canada, according to Brandon LaBelle, a company sales representative. Hundreds of officers come every year to use the live shoot house at Forsyth alone, an official told me. It gets rustled around quite a bit—an administrator has to go in after each session to make sure things like the foam stove are still in the kitchen.

Founded in 1994, Range Systems boasts that it has become the nation’s leading furnisher for and builder of live shoot houses. Though its growth was initially slow, the company’s business boomed during the Iraq War, when the Pentagon, then using old TVs and couches as props, realized it needed better simulated furniture for its war training sites. Range’s solution isn’t cheap: an ottoman goes for $399 on its website, while the kitchen sink is $699. But to practitioners of urban warfare or SWAT raids, realism in props is more important than civilians might think. “Compare learning to drive in a simulator and learning to drive on the street,” one officer told me. “Some things just need to be more realistic.”

This kind of safety material has since found other uses in the general public. Bullet-resistant panels are now used by offices and hospitals, sales of bulletproof backpacks are on the rise in some school districts, and bulletproof blankets are now sold to preschools so that children have protection in the event of an active shooter. This furniture, however, is designed for an opposite use—to absorb, rather than to repel, bullets. In a sense, the live shoot house looks like the ultimate training stage, the last stop in reality-based preparation before tactical plans hit the real world. With active shooter scenarios apparently on the rise—or at least increasingly covered in the media—and the number of gun homicides in the US remaining 25 times higher than most other high-income nations, this ersatz house, with all of its fake furniture, is still arrestingly real.

Jillian Mayer is an artist and filmmaker living in Miami, Florida. Kelly Loudenberg is a filmmaker and artist living in Los Angeles, California.

A version of this essay appeared in Pioneer Works Journal, # 5