“Carefully designed and intelligently executed, a staff ride is one of the most powerful instruments available for the professional development of U.S. Army leaders,” says William G. Robertson in his book The Staff Ride (U.S. Army, 1987). The U.S. Army has developed a training technique that can be used in modified form to teach hazardous-materials emergency response. The Army “staff ride” is really a ease-study method of training that is becoming more and more popular.

This method of training is about 100 years old. In the late 1890s the British Army was training officers through a series of practical staff rides. Today Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh has been a driving force behind the expanded use of the historical staff ride.

The military developed this unique style of instruction for an easily understood reason, which applies equally well to hazardous-materials emergency response: “The professional soldier cannot routinely practice his profession like other professionals by doing the real thing. It is too costly in terms of resources, and the loss of lives renders it unthinkable,” according to Colonel Domenic R. Sette in his unpublished manuscript Staff Rides at the War College Prior to World War 1: Their Use and effectiveness.

Although some of us may not have fond memories or positive mental images of “rigid” military training, we need to keep in mind the underlying purpose of the staff ride: “It taught a generation of officers how to think, not what to think,” Sette says.

In The Staff Ride, Robertson outlines the important function of this teaching technique: “What the student—the professional soldier—must achieve is what German military theorist Karl von Clausewitz in On War defined as critical analysis: Determine the facts, establish cause and effect, and analyze the results.”

Professor Jay Luvaas, the Army War College’s recognized expert in the actual conduct of staff rides, says: “There is something to be gained from walking those fields that will never be found on a computer terminal or Pentagon briefing chart.” As Luvaas notes in his book The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battles of Chancel lorsvi lie & Frederickshtttg (South Mountain Press, 1988): “To.. merely memorize is useless.”

To illustrate how some things never change, the following is from British Army Colonel R.C.B. Making s 1908 book Staff Rides and Regimental Tours: “.. .the examinations themselves, and the courses of instruction preceding them, w ere not always of a very practical nature. One of the most important branches of military education appeared to be Topography, though it is difficult to understand why so much value was attached to it for so long a period, unless perhaps because it taught officers a knowledge of ground, but this could be taught more effectively by exercising them in the solution of tactical problems on the ground.. .there always appears to be some unreality about what is written in a book.. We find that though officers can learn the principles of w^ar from books, and can even write excellent books on the subject, they are not always able to apply these principles when they find the enemy in front of them. The teaching of books is then forgotten, and the officer or soldier only remembers what he has learned and constantly practiced on the drill ground, at training, or at maneuvers.”

Colonel Haking summarizes the reasons we need to consider teaching hazardous-materials emergency response by using case studies instead of memorizing chemical formulas: “.. what he has learned from books has not come to him naturally by studying the ground, by an effort of memory, and he did not learn it at the time to enable him to lead his men in war so much as to pass an examination. He has probably forgotten it long before he goes to war….”

It has long been recognized in education that most of us learn more by seeing than by hearing about something. The hazardous-materials case study takes the place of the staff ride. Showing slides or going to the actual site allows us to better understand what happened. By talking about what led up to the accident and the factors involved in its mitigation, . .the visual images and spatial relationships created by carefully designed field study reinforce any analytical conclusions acquired earlier,” Robertson says.

When conducting actual field trips or using color slides for case-study training, you avoid “theory.” In dozens of actual case studies we have found that everyone gets far more training benefit by using a real event. Not only are there specific, provable learning objectives, but when the whole thing is over, everyone agrees on what took place. The factual record is undeniable. This tends to eliminate the feeling of frustration that usually occurs when a theoretical scenario is used and there is extensive disagreement over its resolution.

In “theoretical” classroom incidents, or tabletop exercises, there are disagreements over what would actually happen, the timing of mitigation techniques, and the effectiveness of actions taken. This is all understandable, since you’re usually dealing with a theoretical scenario someone has dreamed up. There is disagreement over so many points, and no one is really satisfied. In the end, training suffers.

If you use color slides and reports of actual incidents, you have a known sequence of events and a known outcome. When things start to get out of control and the “what-iffers” are creating chaos, you can note what actually did happen next and get on with it. Since so many people in hazardousmaterials emergency response do not have actual, practical field experience on which to base their ideas or questions, they usually end up “whatiffing” an exercise to death.

Actual, known outcomes also help to keep the problem focused on what counts—that is, what works in the real world. By reminding everyone of what has occurred and injecting the actual events, you avoid the theoretical pitfalls of trying to construct even’ possible scenario at the expense of getting something accomplished.

Unfortunately, much of our training involves theoretical incidents that have been written by someone who isn’t actually involved in emergency response. What usually occurs when the “planners” write the scenario is that you end up with a complicated series of events with no connection to what happens in the real world. This only results in counterproductive training.

Thus, a study of the acknowledged effectiveness of the U.S. Army staff ride indicates that we could use this same technique to conduct hazardous-materials emergency response training by the case-study method. We would be better preparing ourselves for the real-world chemical accidents that, tragically, can be just as deadly as war.

British Colonel Making could have been talking about hazardous-materials emergency responders when he observed the following more than 90 years ago: “The British officer has sometimes failed in war because he has been afraid, not of the enemy or of being shot, but of doing the wrong thing.”*

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