Beyond the Rule of Thumb — Survival Tip 58

The past two editions of Haz-Mat Survival Tips discussed an exercise design process focused on preparing personnel to deal with mass-casualty incidents involving fires, explosions, chemical exposure, and building collapse. As stated previously, these incidents could be the result of terrorist acts, accidents, or sabotage. Regardless of the cause, the actions of first responders would likely be similar. Steps in the exercise design process covered thus far have included developing goals and objectives, identifying stakeholders, developing a realistic scenario, and assigning roles and responsibilities to participants.  

Provide Pre-Exercise Training  

Once designers understand the performance objectives and have built them into the scenario, you must train personnel on how to accomplish their assigned tasks during the exercise. Some may question the need for this because they may believe that participants should go into any exercise “cold” and with little warning about what to expect so the capability of first responders can be accurately assessed. Unfortunately, this approach builds in the potential for failure as well as success, and it has been my experience that failure during an exercise does more than just expose shortfalls; it also breeds discontent, embarrassment, and frustration among participants. These are not the results you want to have at the end of the day.      

A better means of evaluating the capability of first responders is to allow them to know not only what the exercise performance objectives are, but also to have an opportunity to demonstrate their skill levels following recent training on those objectives.  Of course, you don’t do this by reading the exercise script to participants beforehand but by instead providing them with the appropriate tools and ensuring that they know when, where, and how to use these tools as the exercise unfolds. 

All training should be general in nature instead of tailored to the specific exercise scenario, lest anyone claim that you are “teaching to the test.”  For example, training on emergency decontamination and rescue of those found trapped in debris can be done without letting first responders know the exact types of situations they will face during the exercise.

To ensure maximum benefit for exercises that will involve interagency activities, one suggestion is to provide joint-training sessions that allow exercise participants an opportunity to meet personnel from other agencies beforehand. Remember that skill level is only one component of success and that much depends on the ability of people to work together effectively, especially when it comes to fire, rescue, and law enforcement. This effectiveness, in turn, is based on trust in the ability of others as it can be achieved through joint training.  This trust will enhance the final outcome not only during the exercise but in the real world as well.
One final consideration regarding the delivery of pre-exercise training is developing the training programs and scheduling the individual sessions. Although some training may involve the use of “canned” programs, thereby streamlining the development and delivery process, other classes may need to be developed based on specific exercise objectives. Regardless, a varied number of training classes will take several weeks to months to accomplish. Therefore, incorporate ample time in the design process to ensure that nothing is omitted. This will require detailed planning, but it is an investment in the outcome of the exercise.

When establishing dates and times for training sessions, consider that not all agencies are on the same work schedule and that this aspect of joint training affects not only the days of the week when sessions are scheduled but also the starting times. You may get off duty at 7 a.m., which should allow you to attend an 8 a.m. class, but this does little good for those who don’t go off duty until 8 a.m., for example. Likewise, those assigned to shift work may be available to train on weekends, but for participants assigned to a 40-hour work week, weekend work usually involves overtime or compensatory time; both cost money. Make sure you don’t commit someone else’s budget. Become familiar with these types of details as you plan meetings during the early stages of the design process.  

A final consideration for training involves exercise controllers, or individuals assigned responsibility for monitoring participants’ performance. One of the best ways to do this is to have instructors from the pre-exercise training program serve as controllers, since they know what was taught to the participants and, therefore, know what constitutes acceptable performance.  Exercise controllers should also have the opportunity to insert various scenarios as the exercise progresses–for example, insertions can include apparatus breakdowns, simulated injuries to personnel that then limit available staffing for the remainder of the exercise, and statements regarding victim “signs and symptoms.” 

When dealing with an exercise focused on terrorism response, one particular insertion can be activation of a “secondary device.”  However, as was discussed in a previous column, this “activation” should not include an actual explosive device but rather something similar to air horn blasts that signal to participants that the exercise has suddenly changed course. 

All inserts should be preplanned, written on cards given to each controller, and used only at the appropriate time. Remind controllers to “stick to the script” to avoid freelancing when it comes to using the inserts they make up as the exercise progresses. Not only can such a situation cause the original intent of the exercise to go off course, but it can also result in injuries from tasks that were not part of the exercise design and frustrate the participants if the inserted scenarios are unrealistic.

Develop a Safety Plan and Site Map

For any exercise, the safety of participants is the most important consideration.  The best way to begin the safety plan is to select a site that offers the types of conditions required by the scenario but will not cause safety to be sacrificed. Fire training centers are obviously one of the best sites from a safety perspective, yet training at public or private venues, such as vacant structures or public open areas, can offer first responders a much more realistic setting. 

When evaluating safety concerns, consider items such as vehicle traffic, pedestrians, and bystanders. Remember also that any exercise conducted outside of the confines of a fire training center will likely draw onlookers; ensure that they keep their distance and do not interfere with the exercise activities. One additional concern for outside sites is to make sure the public knows that the exercise is not the “real thing.”  With today’s availability of social networking sites, it would not take long for the exercise to take on a life of its own.            

Weather is another safety concern. When considering that an exercise like the one discussed here will likely involve emergency decontamination using water from hose streams, it would probably be best to choose spring or fall, when the weather is not extreme. The time of day is also important.  If ample lighting is available, a night exercise may provide a more realistic setting.  Of course, when considering training at night, exercise designers must determine if the cost for some personnel, namely those assigned to day work, would be an issue.

A comprehensive safety plan should provide for safety officers along with a method for identifying these individuals (such as using clearly marked vests or hats) and the understanding that each has the authority and means to immediately terminate the exercise.  The safety plan should also spell out how and where emergency apparatus would operate, especially if apparatus respond to the exercise site from a fire station on public roads, Whenever this is the case, the safety plan should stipulate that under no circumstance should apparatus respond in an “emergency” mode.

When considering real-world issues, the safety plan must provide participants with steps to take if they suffer an injury; the locations of first aid stations, rehab areas, and restroom facilities; and warnings for any hazards that cannot be eliminated.  Examples of these hazards include uneven terrain, the possibility of snakes or poison ivy in nearby wooded areas, and reminders regarding the signs and symptoms of environmental exposure. Develop a simple site map highlighting these areas and give a copy to each participant before the exercise begins.

No exercise safety plan is complete without some means of notifying all participants if the exercise must been terminated for any reason.  Notification can be through a statement made by portable radios or by using audible warning devices, such as sirens or air horns on apparatus. Examples of reasons for terminating an exercise include a request from a safety officer, notification of a real-world emergency involving the location where the exercise is being conducted, or the occurrence of an emergency in the locality that will require the attention of the exercise participants. For the latter situation, apparatus that would respond from the exercise site to a real-world emergency should be available and uncommitted to the exercise; it should be positioned to respond with minimal delay.  Remember to prepare riding assignments for this apparatus before the exercise begins.  If an exercise is terminated, the safety plan should identify an emergency staging area for participants so that all personnel can be accounted for. 

Whenever possible, ensure that radio communications are conducted over a dedicated training frequency. If one is not available, the safety plan must include steps to ensure that others who may have access to the frequency do not interpret the radio traffic as a real incident. This can lead to outside agencies self-dispatching to assist during the “emergency” and unnecessary grief as media pour into the area. To avoid this situation, notify surrounding jurisdictions at the beginning and end of the exercise, and ensure that all radio traffic is preceded by the words, “This is an exercise message.” 

Finally, the safety plan should include details for managing the exercise, which should be similar to the incident command system (ICS) used locally. As with any ICS, there should only ONE person in charge, and this person then delegates responsibility for various functions to others. It cannot be stressed enough that freelancing by participants and controllers can lead to problems with safety and the completion of the exercise performance objectives.  

Develop an Exercise Schedule

When conducting an exercise, there is usually nothing worse than discovering that you are running out of time and you must, therefore, eliminate certain aspects of the scenario or rush participants to complete their tasks. To avoid this, develop a simple schedule and break it down into 15-minute modules. Some may prefer precise five-minute blocks of time; however, my experience has shown that doing this can cause exercise managers to get behind schedule early in the event.  This “behind schedule” mindset then creates a sense of urgency on the part of managers, and participants will soon sense that the exercise is out of control. By using time blocks of 15-minutes or longer, most exercise managers generally find themselves “ahead of schedule” and more confident in their ability to control the event.

During any exercise, allow ample time for set-up, participant registration, and a briefing session. In particular, the briefing should include a thorough review of the safety plan and site map. During the briefing, recognize local government and political leaders who may be in attendance; provide them with an opportunity to address the participants. I’ve learned that by providing these individuals with a “token” of appreciation, you invest in the political future of your organization that can pay big dividends later on. One gift I’ve used on occasion is a fire department “job shirt,” as opposed to just a T-shirt or patch. Although job shirts can be expensive, you just may find the mayor or city manager wearing that same shirt at your next major incident.           

The schedule should also include time for a debriefing session (sometimes referred to as a “hot wash”) at the conclusion of the exercise. This session will enable you to learn the thoughts and concerns of participants and controllers.  Even though you will likely convene a formal post-incident review session at a later date, nothing is as effective as speaking with participants about their experiences while they are still mentally engaged in the event.

During this debriefing session, provide participants with opportunities to achieve a sense of accomplishment even though certain objectives may not have been met.  I prefer to avoid broad statements such as “Everyone did an outstanding job.” That may not always be the case. Although recognizing stellar performance is important, couch less than positive behavior as a “learning experience” as opposed to a “failure.”  Control combative or otherwise critical verbal attacks, and ensure that comments are brief, objective, and that any negative statements are focused on tasks not individuals.        

Prepare a Summary Document

A summary document includes all activities undertaken for the planning and execution of the exercise and helps avoid having to “reinvent the wheel” when preparing for the next one. This document should include copies of all paperwork from the previous steps, including a list of stakeholder agencies, details of the scenario, a list of training programs conducted as preparation for the event, the safety plan, and the exercise schedule. 

The summary document should also incorporate a list of changes to be implemented to improve the performance of participating agencies and a schedule of changes that are pending or underway. As part of one summary document I prepared, we obtained copies of internal memos from the participating agencies.  Included in these memos were statements regarding additional training; development and revision of agency policies and procedures; use of equipment such as atmospheric monitors; and, of course, a “wish list” of new equipment.

Preparation of the summary document should coincide with the distribution of thank-you letters to each agency head and government official who attended. Although many today prefer to rely on e-mail for this type of correspondence, there are exceptions to every rule, and this is one instance when a real letter on an official letterhead with a real signature can carry a lot of weight. When sending these letters, include a copy of the summary document. If it is not yet ready, indicate when it can be expected. Make sure that everyone’s name is spelled correctly.

A primary goal of exercise design is to develop a training event that is winnable. A desirable exercise is one that is realistic, reinforces positive behavior, and leaves participants with a sense of accomplishment.  Always plan for success!

Steven M. De Lisi recently retired from the fire service following a 27-year career that included serving as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue and a division chief for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP).  De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist and as an adjunct instructor for VDFP, he continues to conduct hazardous materials Awareness and Operations-level training for fire suppression and EMS personnel.  De Lisi began his career in hazardous materials response in 1982 as a member of the hazmat team with the Newport News (VA) Fire Department.  Since then he has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management; in that capacity, he provided on-scene assistance to first responders dealing with hazardous materials incidents in a region that included more than 20 local jurisdictions. De Lisi holds a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of the textbook entitled, Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response, published by PennWell.

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