Calling it another tool for officer and inmate safety, staff at the Gallatin County jail began training with the latest weapon in their non-lethal arsenal: pepperball launchers.

"This is a safe place. It's a civilized place. But it is a jail," said Capt. Jason Jarrett, administrator of the Gallatin County Detention Center. "We have to be ready for when things go south."

Detention center officers are the only law enforcement in Gallatin County to use pepperballs.

The jail has two pepperball launchers, and while they were purchased well over a year ago, instructors needed training and policies to be drawn up before training the rest of the staff, Jarrett said.

So what are they exactly?

The pepperball launchers are modified paintball guns, shooting the same .68-caliber balls, but differing in a few ways.

The rounds contain pava powder and are heavier than typical paintball rounds. And the launchers have a faster velocity and a scuffed barrel for increased accuracy.

"This isn't something you can just go down to the store and purchase," said Sgt. Shawn Fliehman, who was helping train detention center officers on how to use the new weapon on Tuesday.

Detention center officers already carry pepper spray and Tasers and are trained in defensive tactics. But jail staff said that pepperball launchers can help defuse situations from a safer distance.

Rounds can be shot from up to 60 feet away, as opposed to pepper spray, which is deployed from up to 20 feet. Tasers have a 7- to 15-foot range.

Officers called the effects from pepperballs minimal, including welts and irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. And while pepper spray is oil-based, pepperballs are filled with powder, which is easier and faster to clean off, they said.

"It will be minimal injury to us and them," said Sgt. Nick Waliser, who also assisted in Tuesday's training.

But staff doesn't expect to use these launchers very often. Pepperballs will only be used in "extreme" situations, Waliser said. "It's only going to come out when we absolutely need it."

Training for detention center officers will continue Wednesday with a third training possibly later this spring until all officers are ready.

Whitney Bermes can be reached at wbermes@dailychronicle.com or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.

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