Designing an Effective Hazardous Materials Exercise, Part II

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Hazmat Survival Tip 28

By Steven De Lisi

In the previous Hazmat Survival Tip, readers were introduced to a 10-step method of exercise design. As was stated in that tip, if the design process is not executed properly, the exercise can become a real-world disaster–much worse that the one you are attempting to simulate. Listed below is an explanation of each step based on a successful exercise conducted using this method.

1. Identify Exercise Goals – The planned exercise was a joint venture between a light industrial facility that manufactured finished wood furniture and local first responders.The primary goal of the exercise was a desire on the part of the facility to test the effectiveness of its recentlycompleted emergency operations plan (EOP), specifically dealing with a hazardous materials incident. Local first responders also expressed an interest in participating as a means to develop stronger working relationships among the three separate fire departments, one EMS agency, and law enforcement agencies that served the community.

The exercise was scheduled for October 2007, and the first of monthly planning meetings was conducted during April of that year. Of particular importance during this first meeting was selecting a date that would not conflict with any other events. Examples include local annual events, such as fairs, parades, softball tournaments, high school graduations, holidays, or even the first day of hunting season. Take your time when selecting the date; attempt to consider ALL potential scheduling conflicts.

2. Identify Stakeholders – During the first meeting with representatives from local first-responder agencies and the facility, we prepared a list of all individuals and groups that would have an interest in the exercise. Included were not only those who would directly participate, such as fire, EMS, and law enforcement, but also those whose interest would help support the event, such as local media and members of the local governing bodies.

In addition, since this would be a hazardous-materials incident, representation from the state environmental quality office and the local hospital was deemed important. The local office of the state highway department was also included, since it would likely play a role in assisting with traffic control. Following this meeting, notices were sent to all of the affected agencies informing them of our desire to have at least one representative serve on the planning committee and attend future meetings.

Check with all exercise stakeholders to ensure that the date selected for the exercise will work for them; it is easier to change the date six months in advance than six days. Also, when it comes to inviting stakeholder agencies to participate, although some might decline to participate, consider that failing to invite them could be the makings of a political disaster. Remember that by allowing the local mayor and council representatives a few minutes to welcome participants at the start of the exercise, you can go a long way toward gaining their support and approval for your next fire department budget increase. Likewise, the local media can be friend or foe depending on how you treat them. Inclusion rather than exclusion is the valuable lesson here.

3. Develop Performance Objectives – During the next planning meeting, the facility reviewed their emergency operations plan with the planning committee and identified several key aspects that they wished to evaluate. Likewise, members of the local fire department and EMS agencies identified some operational issues that were of concern based on some recent real-world experiences. Since the facility did not train its employees to respond to a hazardous-materials release, it needed only to evacuate the facility in the event of an incident. A partial list of objectives included the following :


  • Notification process to evacuate the facility.

  • Means to account for all employees.

  • Procedures for facility representatives to interface with local first responders.

  • Ability of first responders to work within the established EOP of the facility.

  • Ability of first responders to establish incident control zones and a unified ICS.

  • Ability of fire, EMS, and law enforcement to communicate effectively by radio.

  • Defensive spill containment measures.

  • Emergency patient decontamination procedures.

  • Fire control and vapor suppression involving flammable liquids.

  • Ability of EMS personnel to interface with members of the fire department.

  • Ability of EMS to provide appropriate care for a patient exposed to a hazardous material.

  • Ability of law enforcement to coordinate with the highway department for scene control.

  • Ability of first responders to interact with the media and local government officials.

4. Develop a Realistic Scenario – All too often, those planning an exercise will dream up some wild hazardous-materials scenario involving skills that first responders would never use and that require equipment they don’t have access to involving products they would never likely encounter. These types of scenarios serve only to inflate the egos of exercise planners as they attempt to see just how much punishment participants can take. Unfortunately, they forget the first rule of exercise development: Plan for success! Remember, too, that the scope of the scenario must fit into the time allotted for the exercise.

For this exercise, planners developed a scenario involving the release of a flammable liquid used at the facility to apply the finish to wood furniture. After speaking with representatives from the facility, it was learned that this material was stored in 55-gallon drums that were transported by forklift throughout the facility. The potential for one of these drums to fall from a forklift and suffer a breach was realistic, as was the potential for this to occur near an outdoor storm drain, along with the likelihood of the employee’s operating the forklift to attempt to upright the breached container, in the process experiencing some degree of contamination from the liquid.

However, since the fire department wished to further test its ability to respond to a fire situation, it was determined that the scenario would include the ignition of the spilled flammable liquid, most likely using the forklift as an ignition source, and that this fire would impinge on a nearby 1,000-gallon aboveground propane storage tank. This event would then trigger the need to evacuate citizens and control traffic flow in the immediate area, thereby involving law enforcement and the highway department.

It should be noted that when developing the scenario, every effort was made to include as ingredients those that would require action on the part of all participating agencies and to ensure that all elements of the scenario were realistic based on the facility and location involved. The last thing planners want is for an agency to commit personnel and resources on the day of the exercise only to have its people sit with nothing to do–or worse, have exercise participants roll their eyes in disbelief as the scenario unfolds as they think to themselves that the likelihood of a similar occurrence in the real world would be akin to a meteorite strike.

To ensure that the actual exercise was consistent with the intended scenario, script cards were prepared for those whose actions or statements would influence the behavior of participants. Individuals who received script cards included simulated victims in need of emergency medical care and dispatchers. Those simulating injuries were instructed in the signs and symptoms they should exhibit, while the direction of dispatchers set the stage as the exercise unfolded. In addition, individuals were assigned as “exercise controllers”; they were able to inject various real-time conditions to which the participants then reacted.

Use caution in allowing controllers too much freedom to improvise direction to participants, since they may easily stray from the intended scenario design. During one such incident, controllers who thought participants were doing too well intentionally added some unintended and unrealistic components to the exercise in an effort to trip up the participants.

5. Assign Roles and Responsibilities – Based on the elements of the scenario, the next planning meeting focused on assigning roles and responsibilities to each agency participating in the exercise. This information was then formatted into a confirmation document that was given to each agency representative. By having the information provided IN WRITING several months before the exercise, there was little chance of anyone’s being unaware of what was expected of them. Each exercise Role and Responsibility sheet included the following headings:


  • Specific agency objectives,

  • Logistics required (including apparatus, equipment, and personnel),

  • Location of the staging area and the time to report, and

  • A summary of the intended action plan.

Of particular importance when assigning roles and responsibilities was the need to provide coverage for real-world events during the exercise. These events could include EMS to deal with injury to an exercise participant as well as the need for outside fire departments and EMS agencies to backfill fire stations whose members were participating in the exercise. Arrangements were made with local fire and EMS agencies to provide these services; their representatives were provided with a Roles and Responsibility sheet long before the day of the exercise.

6. Identify Training Needs – During the next planning meeting, there was a discussion regarding the need to train exercise participants to meet the desired objectives. Although some might decry this approach, instead choosing to use the exercise as a means to determine what participants don’t know, we once again chose to plan for success. NOBODY likes to be embarrassed in front of their peers, and doing so during an exercise serves only to decrease members’ morale and increase resentment and frustration. That hardly qualifies as an effective recruitment and retention tool.

Training sessions to help ensure the success of participants were developed based on the objectives identified earlier and included the following topics:


  • Facility emergency response plan and local ICS protocols,

  • Use of fire suppression foam on flammable liquid spills and fires,

  • Control of fires involving aboveground propane storage tanks,

  • Emergency patient decontamination, and

  • Defensive spill containment measures.

When developing these training sessions, members of the planning committee were cautious to schedule them at times that were conducive to maximum participation. In other words, we allowed participants to select the most appropriate times as opposed to the planning committee stating when the training would be held. Furthermore, since one of the exercise goals was to develop better working relationships among local responders, the location of each training session was rotated among facilities operated by each participating agency. We learned that for some firefighters, it was the first time they had ever set foot in the industrial facility or in the building operated by the local rescue squad.

As a way to encourage individuals to attend these training sessions, notices advertising each class were distributed locally. The heading read , “What if There Was a Disaster and Everyone Came–Prepared?”

7. Develop a Safety Plan and Site Map – Conducting a training exercise without a safety plan is a recipe for disaster. Besides protecting participants from any hazards directly related to the exercise, the safety plan also sought to protect them from any real-world hazards that might have been present.

By all means, the focus when planning an exercise should be to eliminate hazards rather than to protect against them. As an example, choosing a location with little, if any, traffic is preferable to having to reroute heavy traffic around the exercise site. Likewise, choosing to use a mannequin for the purpose of allowing first responders to demonstrate rescue and emergency decontamination is preferable to using a live victim, who may get seriously beat up during the rescue and decontamination process.

The safety plan we developed provided for safety officers along with a way to identify these individuals (using clearly-marked vests) and the understanding that each had the authority and means to immediately terminate the exercise. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, exercise controllers were assigned to monitor the performance of participants.

To properly evaluate participants, controllers were provided with a checklist of performance objectives developed for the exercise; they used that list as a means to document the performance of each individual or group assigned various tasks. Remember that for any exercise to be an effective learning tool, controllers must know what constitutes success.

The safety plan also spelled out how and where emergency apparatus would operate. This was especially important, since this exercise called for apparatus to respond from fire stations on public roads. Whenever this is the case, the safety plan should stipulate that under no circumstance should apparatus respond in an “emergency” mode.

The safety plan also provided participants with steps to take if they suffered an injury; the locations of first-aid stations, rehab areas, and restroom facilities; and warnings for any hazards that could not be eliminated. Examples of these hazards included uneven terrain, the possibility of snakes or poison ivy in nearby wooded areas, and reminders regarding the signs and symptoms of environmental exposure. A simple site map highlighting these areas was developed and a copy was given to each participant before the exercise began.

Always remember that 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 over portable radios or by using audible warning devices, such as sirens or air horns on apparatus. We elected to use all of these methods.

Examples of reasons an exercise may have to be terminated include a request from a safety officer or notification of a real-world emergency involving the facility where the exercise is being conducted or one that has occurred in the locality that will require the attention of 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.

Last, remember to organize the management of the exercise in a manner similar to an incident command system, with only ONE person in charge/ This person then delegates responsibility for various functions to others. Furthermore, whenever possible, ensure that radio communications are conducted using 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. Steps we took to avoid this included sending notifications to surrounding jurisdictions at the beginning and end of the exercise, as well as ensuring that all radio traffic was preceded by the words, “This is an exercise message.”

8. 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, it is helpful to develop a simple schedule divided into no less than 15-minute blocks. Some might prefer to use precise five-minute blocks of time, but our experience has shown that by doing so, exercise managers will get behind schedule early into the event. This “behind schedule” mindset then creates a sense of urgency on the part of managers, and very soon participants will sense that the exercise is out of control. By using time blocks of 15-minutes or longer, it was determined that most exercise mangers usually found themselves “ahead of schedule” and were, therefore, more confident in their ability to control the event.

During this exercise, ample time was allotted for setup, participant registration, and a participant briefing. In particular, the briefing included a thorough review of the safety plan and site map. Local government officials and leaders from various emergency response organizations attended these briefings… We recognized the attendance of these individuals and also allowed them an opportunity to address participants, knowing that the goodwill invested in this time would likely pay big dividends later on.

The schedule also included time for a debriefing session at the conclusion of the exercise. Failing to allow ample time for this session will prevent you from learning the thoughts and concerns that are fresh in the minds of participants and controllers. Even though we convened 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, make every effort to provide participants with a sense of accomplishment, even though certain objectives may not have been met. Although recognizing stellar performance is important, less than positive behavior should be couched as a “learning experience” as opposed to a “failure.” Do not allow anyone to engage in a combative or otherwise critical verbal attack on participants. Ensure that the the comments are brief and objective, and that any negative statements are aimed at tasks, not individuals.

9. Conduct a Post-Incident Review -All exercise managers and controllers and at least one representative from each participating agency attended the post-incident review. Each agency representative had prepared in advance of this session a list of comments from their respective participants. A post-incident review session should be scheduled no more than 30 days after the exercise.

The most important aspect of any post-incident review is to determine if the exercise objectives were met in a satisfactory manner. If not, any issues contributing to the inability of exercise participants to reach these objectives should be identified and categorized. As a general rule, performance problems fall into the categories of equipment and training or are a combination of both.

Another outcome of this session is a compilation of lessons learned or reinforced during the exercise. A list of these lessons, along with any equipment or training issues, should be accompanied by the steps necessary to correct them. Unfortunately, often, no one is made accountable for these steps or a date by which they must be completed.

Without some level of accountability, the list of desired improvements will likely collect dust in a file cabinet. Therefore, plan on scheduling follow-up meetings to the post-incident review session as a means to “encourage” people to complete their assigned tasks related to improving future performance. Given the time demands placed on members of most emergency response organizations, this ongoing process to follow up on the findings of the post-incident review can be the most difficult aspect of an exercise. But, remember that the reason you conduct an exercise in the first place is to afford personnel an opportunity to be better at what they do. Don’t let them down!

10. 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 nine 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 that were implemented to improve the performance of participating agencies and a “wish list” of changes that are pending or underway, along with a schedule for these changes. As part of our summary document were internal memos from participating agencies and the facility where the exercise was conducted. Included in these memos were statements regarding the installation of wind socks, changes in the way in which containers of hazardous materials were handled, the need to provide additional training on the use of atmospheric monitors, and the decision to place rolls of barrier tape on all emergency response vehicles.

Preparation of the summary document should coincide with the distribution of thank-ou letters to each agency 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 and, if it is not yet ready, an indication as to when they can expect to receive it.

Finally, when preparing the summary document and thankyou letters, take the time to ensure that everyone’s name is spelled correctly. If you don’t believe the importance of this, think about the last time you looked at a document that you knew contained your name. Chances are you eagerly checked to see your name in print. Remember your disappointment when you discovered that it was spelled wrong. Little things mean a lot.

A primary goal of the 10-step method is to develop an exercise that is winnable. Anyone can design an exercise that can push first responders to the breaking point and beyond, yet a desirable exercise is one that is realistic and that reinforces positive behavior and leaves participants with a sense of accomplishment. Always plan for success!

Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

Steven M. De Lisi retired after a fire service career spanning 27 years that included serving as a regional training manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) and most recently as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue. De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist; he continues to coordinate a statewide training program for the investigation of environmental crimes as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. 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 involved with hazardous-materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions.

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