A man loiters in the back aisle of a convenience store, hands buried in his coat pockets. A disgruntled former worker shows up at his old office. A suspicious man lurks in the dark corners of a parking garage.

Police officers can encounter these high-stakes, potentially lethal situations on the job.

Now, the Dakota County Sheriff says his deputies are better able to react to them after full-immersion, virtual-reality firearms training at Gander Mountain Academy.

The St. Paul-based outdoor specialty retailer opened the academy in Lakeville last summer. One of just six in the country, it features a 300-degree simulator, a 180-degree simulator, a virtual shooting range and an indoor live-fire range.

All 80 of Dakota County's sheriff's deputies trained on the simulators last week. Lakeville police are also training there.

"It's a spectacular training tool because it places officers in real-life situations," said Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows. "How we train is how we perform out on the street. The closer we get to realistic training, the better the officers are out on the street." Bellows said his department has had three shooting incidents in the past 12 years.

The academy is open to the public but offers specialized training exclusively to law enforcement. Scenarios range from a traffic stop to a domestic dispute to a kidnapping.

In the simulators and virtual firing range, officers use a modified .40-caliber Glock 22 handgun outfitted with a laser-firing system instead of ammunition. A small CO2 canister mimics the recoil of a firearm when the trigger is pulled.

"You are getting the same weight, feel, trigger control and sight alignment," explained Justin Johnson, Gander Mountain Academy supervisor. "It's a real gun, for all intents and purposes."

In the 300-degree simulator, officers are surrounded by five large, high-definition video screens and surround sound. The floor even vibrates.

Officers must make quick and accurate decisions based on the scenarios playing out on screen. The training is intense and lifelike, with officers drawing their weapons and shouting out commands to suspects.

"I will shake hands at the end of the sessions and their palms will be sweating. Their heart rates are elevated," Johnson said.

The video programs are interactive, so officers must speak to the characters on the screen.

"As a training tool it's priceless," said Dmitriy Vecherkov, a Dakota County Sheriff's deputy and department firearms instructor. "Your adrenaline shoots up. It's really close to the real deal."

This isn't just target practice, Vecherkov said. It's making sure officers are following procedure and avoiding the use of force if possible.

"If the officer is asking the right questions, he can make the person on the screen comply with the commands," Vecherkov said.

Cameras inside the simulators record the sessions and can be reviewed in adjacent classrooms afterward, Johnson said.

While the military has used simulators for years, law enforcement has had limited access to virtual training equipment, police say.

Lakeville police were considering buying a simulator for training but dropped the idea when Gander Mountain Academy opened.

"It's state-of-the-art equipment. It's a total immersion," said Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof. "What's useful for us is the 'shoot, no-shoot' scenarios and having the situations where officers are making the decisions about the use of force."

It costs $45 for a 30-minute session in the 300-degree simulator, $35 for 30 minutes in the 180-degree simulator and $25 for 30 minutes at the virtual shooting range. Law enforcement receives a 20 percent discount, Johnson said.

Both Vonhof and Bellows say the virtual training complements live range training, but it doesn't replace it.

The academy also offers a variety of firearms classes and one-on-one instruction for the public. Gander Mountain says it is the first retailer to offer this simulation technology to the public.

The simulator programs available to the public focus on self-defense, marksmanship and a pistol course.

"Gander Mountain is one of the largest retailers of firearms in the country. We thought it was our responsibility to make sure people know how to safely and properly use a firearm," said Gander Mountain spokesman Jess Myers. "This is the first time it's available to consumers."

Shannon Prather is a Roseville freelance writer.