Creating Dynamic, Real-World Multicompany Training Drills

BY CHRIS JELINEK

As any fire department training officer will tell you, the position’s responsibilities vary widely from managing the mundane details of scheduling and records management to the more active and engaging tasks of designing and instructing single- and multicompany drills. This article describes my efforts to design, deliver, and evaluate dynamic multicompany drills for the Humboldt Bay (CA) Fire Department and the Arcata (CA) Fire Protection District (mutual aid).

As a starting point, let’s answer the questions, “What exactly is a dynamic multicompany drill?” and “Why should I create one?” The dynamic multicompany drill is one that replicates the real-world conditions of an emergency incident. Broadly speaking, its goal is to improve participant critical-thinking and decision-making skills by asking students to apply what they already know in uniquely challenging situations. Rather than reinforcing basic skills through repetitive training, these drills emphasize improvisation and problem solving. Say, for example, you decide to set up an extrication drill. Instead of planning a skills refresher where students rotate through various stations to take a door, roll the dash, pull the roof, and so on, the instructor sets up a mock two-vehicle traffic collision in which one vehicle rests upside down on top of the other and victims (manikins) are trapped in both. Ultimately, the goal is to build scenarios so realistic that students can apply their experiences and lessons learned at similar future incidents.

Why should you do this? Consider the following: How many incidents have you responded to that went exactly according to policy or lesson plan? I would guess not very many. Often, the highest performers at an incident are those who possess solid fundamentals plus a unique combination of common sense and improvisation skills. These drills strive to improve the quality of decision making, situational awareness, and teamwork required during the high-stress and rapidly changing situations we face at emergency incidents.

What this means for both participants and coordinators is that the dynamic multicompany drill is an environment in which creative problem solving is highly encouraged. Some solutions will work; others may not. Either scenario creates learning opportunities for the instructor to reinforce positive actions or to discuss why the plan did not work and how it could be improved.

For this style of drill to be successful, participants must possess a solid base of firefighting fundamentals. These skills, once developed within Firefighter I or recruit academies, are best refined by the company officer. At the company level, our goal (through hands-on training) is to develop “unconscious competence”—i.e., skill mastery sufficient to perform a task on autopilot at 2 a.m. after awakening from a dead sleep. Physically performing manipulative drills, as compared to tabletop exercises, is critical! Imagine trying to master a golf swing or a swim stroke by listening to a lecture or watching a video. If you are concerned that your firefighters do not possess the basic skills of our trade, reinforce these proficiencies before advancing to the dynamic multicompany drill.

One final note before we dig into the drill specifics: I cannot overstate the importance of creating a positive learning environment, one in which participants feel safe to own up to their mistakes and discuss how things could have gone better. One of the most damaging things we (drill facilitators) can do is publicly berate participants for their perceived shortcomings. This will shut down the communication process for the current and subsequent drills. If you identify engine/truck company or personal shortcomings, a private counseling session is the appropriate venue for bringing the issue to light and presenting an improvement plan.

DESIGNING A SUCCESSFUL DRILL

There are several key components to designing a successful dynamic multicompany drill. They are concept and design, implementation, and evaluation.

Concept and Design

The first step in designing a multicompany drill is to step away from the traditional training officer mindset and select a realistic scenario that is both specific and relevant to your target audience. A common mistake many training officers (myself included) make is to run a multicompany hose drill at the training tower and tell participants the objective is to put two lines in use to attack a simulated fire on the third floor. I have to tell you, if we ever respond to a working fire on division 3 of our hose tower, we will be ready! So how do you select a topic? Listed below are a few suggestions to get the creative juices flowing and begin the brainstorming process.

Review trade journal articles and the Internet. Sometimes all it takes to stimulate your imagination is to look at a few incident pictures or videos or read a trade journal article. For example, a few years ago, I came across an article on myfirefighternation.com written by Captain (Ret.) Mike Schlags, titled “FFN Hazmat Drill—MVA involving 55-gallon drums.” The article described a traffic accident involving a flatbed truck and a passenger car. The passenger car driver was not injured and had walked away from the scene, but the truck driver remained in the vehicle. In the back of the truck are several placarded 55-gallon drums, one of which is smoking. A bag labeled “Mice sniper rodenticide-zinc phosphide” rests on the ground near a damaged drum. This drill was based on an actual incident with a known outcome. I ran this drill with very few changes and observed the results.

For my department, the majority of companies opted for a quick snatch and grab of the victim. They were in full personal protective equipment, including self-contained breathing apparatus. Although most used the Emergency Response Guidebook for initial product identification (gaining important clues as to the volatility of the product), not all performed field expedient decon before transitioning to patient care. This omission created a great learning opportunity, reinforcing lessons a more static training environment could never replicate. The original article is at http://bit.ly/1bZA4bk.

Another possibility is to play the “imagine if” game. To play, insert a scenario to which your department might respond at the end of the phrase “Imagine if” followed by “what would we do?” For example, “Imagine if Truck 3 and Engine 6 responded to a vehicle fire with a victim pinned under the car with a high-voltage power line lying across the vehicle. What would we do?” I tried this drill with my firefighters, and no one was more surprised than I to find that several companies opted to make the rescue before notifying the local utility company to secure the power (photo 1). Does your agency have a similar knowledge gap? Try this drill and find out!

two-vehicle traffic collision
(1) This drill depicted a two-vehicle traffic collision that included a power pole down, one victim trapped, plus an engine compartment fire. (Photo by author.)

Alternately, identify community-specific buildings based on personal knowledge, target hazards, or department history (historical incidents from your department or those of a neighboring agency) that have had fires, have a high probability of catching fire, or will represent a significant community impact if they did. Photograph these buildings. If possible, show all sides so officers can simulate their 360° walk-around. Using a digital fire simulator program, imbed fire and smoke conditions into the pictures. You can convert these images to poster-size pictures for display at the drill grounds or upload them to a tablet PC and illustrate fire conditions in real time.

I used this technique to simulate a working fire in a five-story Type-3 constructed building known locally as the “commercial building” (photo 2). I began each drill briefing by saying, “Here we are once again in front of our five-story metal hose tower. I can’t change how it looks, but as best as we can, we are going to simulate a working fire in the commercial building as depicted by these pictures. The commercial building is one of our target hazards. Who can tell me what they know about it?”

fire effects created within Digital Combustion's Fire Studio 5 software
(2) Digital fire simulation software was used to depict a working fire in a local target hazard. (Photo by author; fire effects created within Digital Combustion’s Fire Studio 5 software.)

Last, but certainly not least, use your imagination! The more specifics you can add to the scenario, the better. Some of the drills we have run recently or plan to coordinate in the near future include the following: an offensive to defensive fire transition in a commercial building, a small airplane crash into a redwood tree (this one really happened), a mass-casualty incident—a school bus vs. a car, an unstable vehicle hanging over a bridge guardrail, removing a 600-pound man from a second-floor apartment, and a building collapse with a firefighter entrapment. With a little creativity and brainstorming, you can come up with your own list to stimulate and challenge your crews.

Once you have selected a topic, focus on developing a realistic but challenging scenario. Here are a few suggestions on how to accomplish this. First, do not announce the drill topics. I modified our monthly training schedule to omit a drill’s specific topic and instead posted the subject line as “Multicompany Drill.” You might be surprised at how many of your company officers prefer this, as they want to be challenged to perform.

Second, as practical, drills should evolve in real time. Design the scenario so apparatus arrive in intervals simulating actual response times. This allows first-arriving companies to size up, select a strategy, and begin implementing it. Later-arriving companies are assigned based on observations of your first-due company. Allowing the drill to evolve naturally improves realism and enhances situational awareness.

Next, encourage participation of relevant agencies or personnel. Multicompany drills are an opportunity to conduct a systems evaluation and see how well your department integrates with outside agencies. The more closely you align the drill with real-world conditions, the higher the value of the drill you will produce. My experience has shown that outside participants want to play, and they appreciate the invitation. For example, our dispatchers are routine participants in multicompany drills. Including them not only adds realism but also acknowledges that dispatchers are important members of the fire department team. Chief officers are key participants. Promote their participation. This can be tough because so many other things are on their schedules, but the value of their involvement is huge not just for themselves but also in allowing the troops to observe experienced decision makers.

Finally, as appropriate, we recruit local actor guild members to serve as role players. This adds realism and entertainment! A few years ago, I coordinated a multicompany drill in a vacant church with an attached two-story school. I instructed two of the role players to hang out of a second-floor window screaming for help to be rescued. When rescuers arrived (by ground ladders), the couple engaged in a verbal dispute as to who should be rescued first. After being rescued and safely transferred to emergency medical services, the role players escalated their verbal dispute into a physical altercation in front of the command post. The incident commander (IC) now had a spontaneous real-world occurrence requiring a simulated response of police for a domestic disturbance.

Objectives and Benchmarks

Set objectives and key benchmarks. Keep them straightforward; two or three are fine. There is no need to make things so overly complicated that crews cannot meet the goals within a realistic time frame. Prior to running your drills, ensure that you clearly understand the relevant department standard operating guidelines (SOGs), as one of your objectives should be to evaluate their efficacy. These guidelines are not worth the paper they are written on if personnel do not understand them or if they are not enforced at incidents. This style of drill has a way of exposing organizational weaknesses; use it as an opportunity to reinforce existing guidelines or identify ways to fix those that are antiquated or impractical. Finally, identify the key benchmarks you want your participants to achieve. For example, for a simulated multistory apartment building fire, one of your benchmarks may be to prioritize and execute rescue of victims depending on their proximity to the fire. If your benchmarks or objectives are not met, you now have a “learning opportunity” to discuss during the drill debriefing.

Safety Plan

I cannot overstate the importance of having a written safety plan. As the drill proctor, it is your responsibility to identify and mitigate significant hazards. There are a few useful templates out there. Write out the key points you will present in your safety briefing prior to initiating the drill, one of which should be a “safe word”—a trigger phrase for indicating an actual safety issue as compared to a drill component such as Mayday or emergency traffic. Our department uses the phrase “real time,” which basically means that all personnel should listen for forthcoming drill-related safety information.

EXECUTION

On drill day, begin each session with a formal briefing. Describe the drill scenario in general terms (avoid the temptation to offer tactical suggestions). Give personnel the apparatus sequence of arrival and time lag between each apparatus. If companies are expected to be in an available status for actual incidents, clearly state which apparatus will leave the drill first and if that response is a trigger to terminate the drill. Finally, discuss the drill communications plan and conduct your safety briefing.

If you have done your homework, executing the drill is the easy part. Imagine you are a movie director preparing for a scene’s final dress rehearsal. In this role, your most important job is to shut the clap stick, say “Action!” and watch the scene unfold. At this point, your primary jobs are to function as the drill safety officer (assign a separate person for high-risk drills) and to take notes on crew activities. Other than that, sit on your hands and let the crews do their work.

One inevitable question that arises is whether you should stop the drill if crew actions don’t go according to script. Generally speaking, I permit the drills to evolve naturally unless safety issues arise. Although I see the argument for stopping a drill to get personnel back on track, the reality is there are no “time outs” on actual incidents. If crews get behind the power curve, it creates yet another learning opportunity as they work through their new set of challenges.

EVALUATION

Before launching into the specifics of drill evaluation, let’s look at what was accomplished in the design and execution of your dynamic multicompany drill:

  • You have identified the strengths and weaknesses of each engine/truck company and battalion. Although the focus is on improving system performance, these drills often expose areas of personal improvement.
  • You have exposed organizational problems with SOGs. Are your SOGs up to date, practical, enforced, and understood? It is better to discover these problems in training than at an incident.
  • You have further developed proficiencies in coordination and communication.
  • You have simulated real-world stresses on the command post such as information overload.
  • You have exposed false assumptions about personnel knowledge and skills. For example, when dealing with power lines on a vehicle following a traffic accident, we teach our personnel to notify the power company and wait for the company to secure the electrical hazard before accessing the patient. However, after adding the additional pressure of an engine compartment fire, the company officer is faced with a difficult decision—one that, if improperly executed, could result in serious injury to personnel.
  • You discovered multiple solutions to the same problem. One of the greatest advantages of coordinating a dynamic multicompany drill is the opportunity to observe an evolution performed by several different crews. More often than not, there are several solutions to the same problem, many of which may never have occurred to you.
  • You have imprinted memories necessary for recognition primed decision making (RPD). According to Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power: How people make decisions, RPD is a decision-making model in which decision makers use intuition rather than comparing lists of options. Decision makers accomplish this by running a mental simulation of their current problem and choosing the first course of action that makes sense. RPDs are largely based on previous experiences. Realistic multicompany drills are one way firefighters can acquire these needed experiences.
  • You have enhanced situational awareness, specifically through a better understanding of time-to-task completion. According to Dr. Richard Gasaway on his Web site “Situational Awareness Matters!” high-level situational awareness is partly formed when you are able to make accurate predictions about future events. These drills provide a range of how long it takes companies to perform various tasks. Expect some variance of crew performance based on experience, fitness levels, and their “take” on what various drill additions mean. Reward high-performing companies with public praise during the incident debrief. Counsel low-performing officers privately, and help them develop an improvement plan.

An effective postincident analysis (PIA) is critical to improving personal and systems performance. In fact, it is often equally as valuable as the drill itself. Again, focus on creating a positive learning environment. Typically, I begin a drill PIA with the question, “So how did things go?” followed by a short period of silence. Usually, a few participants will step forward and talk about how things went for them personally or for their company. I use their comments as a launching point to acknowledge things that went well and to discuss areas of improvement.

Trust is key. As drill coordinators, if we chastise personnel for performance issues, it will be the last time they will risk publicly revealing their failures. Refer to your drill objectives. If personnel do not discuss key points, it is the facilitator’s responsibility to bring them forward. For example, in a drill evaluating a change of strategy from offensive to defensive, you might say, “It seemed like the transition from offensive to defensive operations took a really long time. What can we do to improve this at an actual incident?” Additionally, as our primary goal is development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, here are a few suggested questions to stimulate conversation:

  • Is there a better solution to … (e.g., setting up a high-point anchor to remove the victim from the tree)?
  • Can anyone think of a different way to solve the (scenario’s) problem?
  • How would you have handled “X” (insert any applicable wildcard)?
  • If we could go back in time to the beginning of the scenario, what would you do differently?
  • What changes would you recommend to our lesson plans or SOGs?

The final step in conducting the PIA is to publish lessons learned and any modifications to procedures that are forthcoming. If you have been successful in simulating real-world conditions, coordination, tactical, and communication issues will inevitably arise. Publishing lessons learned plus the proposed or actual solutions will enhance the learning process.

Coordinating this style of dynamic multicompany drill has been one of the more rewarding aspects of my tenure as training officer. My experiences have shown they create students who are interested, engaged, and enthusiastic about drill participation. Each drill offers opportunities to improve situational awareness, imprint memories that enhance RPD, and develop higher level of cognitive and psychomotor skills. Put this package together, and you will have a more effective emergency response organization, one that can adapt to the unique challenges our profession has to offer.

References

1. Gasaway, R. (2012, July 10). Time to task completion is critical for situational awareness. Retrieved September 4, 2012, from Situational awareness matters!: http://www.samatters.com/2012/07/10/time-to-task-completion-is-critical-for-situational-awareness/

2. Klein, G. (1998). Sources of Power: How people make decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

CHRIS JELINEK is a battalion chief and training officer for the Humboldt Bay (CA) Fire Department and a 21-year veteran of the California fire service. He is an associate faculty member for College of the Redwoods’ Fire Technology Program, president of the Northern California Training Officer’s Association, and a recent graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program.

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