Designing a Full-Scale Exercise for a Terrorist Incident

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 57

By Steven De Lisi

The last edition of Haz-Mat Survival Tips discussed the need to prepare for mass-casualty incidents involving fires, explosions, chemical exposure, and building collapse. As stated in that column, there are likely few first responders who have trained for these situations save perhaps for some terrorism response training conducted several years ago. Yet with the emphasis on preparations for a terrorist incident declining in many regions because of a variety of factors, the benefits of these earlier training efforts have most likely disappeared. 

Anyone who doubts this need only recall the recent national elections where jobs and medical care were the topics of discussion for politicians and voters. Remember back in 2004 when the presidential election was focused on which political party would keep the country safe from terrorists? This is not so anymore, and I believe the fire service should have a keen interest in resurrecting the interest in preparing for a terrorist event since it is our lives that are on the line. Also, never forget that similar catastrophic situations can result from acts of sabotage or accidents so that preparation for these types of events will cover many bases.  

One of the best ways to prepare for any event is a full-scale exercise, yet unlike some of the federally funded terrorist response exercises conducted several years ago, a full-scale exercise does not have to involve a major investment. It can be done with limited resources and can be divided into small segments that can be conducted on different days, minimizing the need for personnel to be out of service for an entire day. Remember that the objective of a full-scale exercise is to have personnel practice their skills in the field instead of in a tabletop exercise, where the focus is on discussions in a classroom setting.  

Initial Steps 

You must consider five initial steps before undertaking any training exercise. I have learned over the years that using these steps in the sequence presented will allow users to design an exercise that is productive and more likely to improve working relationships among participating agencies. These steps are as follows:

  1. Identify the goals of the exercise.
  2. Identify the stakeholders.
  3. Develop performance objectives.
  4. Design a realistic scenario.
  5. Assign roles and responsibilities.   

Identify Exercise Goals

The question here is, “Why do we need to do this?” The answer is, it important when trying to encourage participation in the exercise, secure the necessary funding, and to ensure that the focus of the exercise is relevant to participants’ needs. In the context of this column, the goal should be to evaluate the readiness of personnel to respond to a mass-casualty incident involving fires, explosions, chemical exposure, and structural collapse. The cause of an event such as this will obviously have a bearing on the development of a scenario and the amount and types of resources needed. For example, if the cause is terrorism, the real-world response will likely include a large number of federal agencies and logistics. If the cause is an accident or sabotage, it will most likely be a local and state agency event. But even if the event is a result of a terrorist act, the federal assets responding will be several hours out, and if the goal of the exercise is to practice how first responders will operate during the first two to three hours, federal assets will likely play a lesser role unless they are nearby. 

 Identify Stakeholders

Stakeholders in the exercise include not only local, state, and federal government emergency response agencies but also private rescue squads, hospitals, and media outlets. Additional stakeholders include government agencies that provide guidance on labor and environmental issues and private businesses such as towing and recovery companies and cleanup contractors. Consult local equipment suppliers, such as those who provide protective clothing, to determine if they can provide supplies and replenish stock in a timely manner. This is critical, since, as was learned during the rash of “anthrax” sightings during the fall of 2001, first responders can quickly deplete their inventory of protective clothing and replacements may be in short supply, as was the case then.

Any major event will involve local government leaders who will have an interest in the outcome not only in terms of the impact to lives and property but also the impact to their political careers since the effectiveness of first responders will be perceived as a reflection of their administration. A representative from at least the local level of government should, therefore, play an active role in the development and execution of the exercise. Don’t forget to provide them an opportunity to address participants during the exercise and to give them public recognition for their support.  This is an investment in the political future of your organization and can pay big dividends later.       

Develop Performance Objectives

Performance objectives are the essential building blocks of the exercise and include measurable outcomes. The components of a well-developed performance objective must include reference to the equipment used in accordance with an established standard that defines the conditions under which a task is performed and the level of performance that is considered acceptable. For example, “Can first responders assigned to an engine company use equipment normally found on a standard engine in the department to decontaminate 10 ambulatory victims within 15 minutes?” This would be an example of a locally developed standard that is considered acceptable. Remember, though, that national performance standards such as those published by the National Fire Protection Association can provide additional guidance when developing performance objectives for your department.

Despite the availability of sophisticated decontamination shelters and showers with heated water, the first personnel to arrive will never have this equipment with them. Likewise, setting up a ladder truck, as some have proposed, to provide an overhead shower will take time. It will likely be the engine company with a hoseline who will have the best and only chance to decontaminate victims. Remember, decontamination not only makes it possible to treat victims’ injuries without first responders becoming victims themselves but also reduces the effects of a victim’s exposure to the chemical. Speed is of the essence, and high-priced decontamination equipment won’t suffice during the early stages of a mass-casualty incident in the real world.             

The importance of identifying stakeholders prior to developing objectives for the exercise allows each participating group the opportunity to determine what its role would be in a real-world setting and what areas they would want to evaluate during the exercise. For example, to upright an overturned highway cargo tank that spilled a dangerous chemical, towing and recovery work crews would likely need to place straps around the tank. However, this would place them and the surrounding area in danger of possibly being exposed to the chemical in the contaminated tank.   

One option is to have the towing and recovery work crews wear chemical protective clothing or have members of a hazardous materials team assist in uprighting the tank. Therefore, some of the performance objectives could measure the ability of personnel to function in one or both of these situations.  

When dealing with building collapse that involves trapped victims and chemical contamination, the need for heavy rescue technicians trained to wear chemical protective clothing (CPC) is a major consideration. However, can personnel perform heavy rescue work while wearing CPC? If so, how resilient is the material against abrasions, cuts, and tears? CPC has been certified to meet NFPA performance standards and for abrasion resistance, but is this testing sufficient for the tasks at hand? Depending on the chemicals involved, would it be more practical to have personnel wear structural firefighter clothing for quick in and out rescues?  When deciding on the potential for rescue vs. “body recovery” situations, first responders must not only evaluate the likelihood of traumatic injuries suffered during the building collapse but also the impact of chemical exposure on the victims. Factors to consider when estimating the impact are the chemical properties that include its physical state, the victims’ proximity to the chemical, and the length of exposure. Deciding not to attempt a rescue is a difficult and sometimes emotional decision. It should, therefore, be considered as one of the performance objectives that will allow personnel to defend their decision.     

When attempting to identify chemicals using atmospheric monitors, have personnel been trained to use these devices while wearing CPC? Compared to learning to use this equipment in a classroom setting, there is a big difference when handling the device and monitoring readings while wearing CPC that includes two pairs of gloves and two visors. 

Product identification may also include obtaining samples of suspect materials, most likely in powder or liquid form. Do personnel have the means to obtain these types of samples and decontaminate the sample containers prior to transporting them to a laboratory? Have they practiced obtaining these samples while wearing CPC? If field analysis is to be attempted, have personnel ensured that the equipment is properly calibrated and maintained to ensure the accuracy of the results? 

Other examples include a hospital stakeholder that may want to practice its ability to set up a portable decontamination shelter at the emergency room and a heavy equipment contractor who may wish to evaluate its ability to use machinery such as front-end loaders and cranes in a contaminated area that necessitates the use of respiratory protection and chemical protective clothing for the machine operators.  

All of the activities just mentioned and many more can be developed into measurable performance objectives. It is not enough to state what it is that you want to evaluate. Instead, determine how well personnel performed. In addition, it is important to identify all potential stakeholders who would likely participate in a real-world event based on the exercise goal and to give each stakeholder an opportunity to develop performance objectives that would benefit them. If this is not done, exercise managers risk having participating groups attend the exercise without playing a meaningful role or having anything to show for it at the end of the day.  

Following one exercise I attended as an evaluator, I asked a group of participants how they thought they had done. Their response was simply, “We survived.” Although survival is obviously important, all participants must complete the exercise with an understanding of what their real-world roles would be and just how well they met measurable performance objectives within a simulated setting. With this approach, after-action reports and recommendations for improvements are then more objective than subjective. Then if remedial training is needed afterwards, the same performance objectives can be used to ensure that areas in which performance was less than satisfactory are improved upon so that participants meet the standards required in the real world.    

Design a Realistic Scenario 

The goal of designing any exercise scenario should be to “plan for success.” Anyone can create a scenario that almost ensures participants’ failure. Although some may believe that an “easy” exercise will breed an abundance of overconfidence, the reality is that if personnel are properly trained and equipped before the exercise, they should be able to handle the tough assignments. 

Any resources that would support first responders during the exercise must be realistic as well. For example, as stated earlier, the response time for a significant number of federal assets to assist with the incident could be several hours. Likewise, if the standard operating procedures of some participating agencies rely on a callback of off-duty personnel, then the number of personnel in play should gradually increase as close to real time as possible. I have seen volunteer fire departments conduct exercises where 20 people participate in the exercise from the very beginning. Yet, if the same incident were to occur in the real world on a weekday morning, there would likely be no more than five personnel available during the initial stage of the event.  

Another aspect of designing a scenario involves the safety of personnel. Just as in live-fire training for structural firefighting using an acquired structure, too much realism can get people injured or killed, exercise designers must temper their zeal to develop an “exciting” scenario and instead resort to some simulation, when necessary, to ensure participants’ safety. As an example, the use of live chemicals that would provide a “hit” on chemical detection devices could be limited to a small container of the product placed near the scene, as opposed to placing the chemical on the ground or in a large open pan to simulate a spill. The former approach provides for control of the chemical; the latter makes it difficult to manage and clean up. 

In one instance, an exercise designer had a strong desire to use a small explosive device known as a “flash-bang” in proximity to first responders to catch them off guard and to see how they would react to that type of “distraction.” Although this might be realistic in some settings, such as when a secondary explosive device activates during a terrorist incident, the fact is that anyone injured as a result of being startled by this type of “distraction,” especially if the device malfunctioned, would likely have a liability claim against the exercise designers.  

Instead, personnel could be informed during the exercise briefing that three blasts of an air horn would simulate the activation of a secondary device. This provides the same end result as using an explosive device, but it’s a lot safer.

One final recommendation when developing a scenario is to ensure that exercise controllers stick to the script. In one exercise I witnessed, the participants successfully completed the performance objectives. This concerned one controller, who thought the exercise must have been “too easy.” He took it upon himself to inject some unbelievable tasks near the end of the session that forced first responders to act in an unrealistic manner and forced them to fail. As a result of these actions, first responders did not have the opportunity to reinforce positive behavior; they left frustrated and angry for being embarrassed in front of their peers. The subsequent political fallout from this controller’s actions was the only real disaster of the day. 

Assign Roles and Responsibilities  

Once it is determined what will be accomplished during the exercise, the next step is to assign roles and responsibilities to each participating group so they can assemble the necessary resources of personnel and equipment. The exercise designers will need to plan for the event by gathering support items such as rehab and first-aid supplies, command staff equipment such as tents and portable radios, and safety equipment such as road cones and barrier tape. These designers also need to obtain training props, which, in this case, could include objects arranged to create obstacles around trapped victims to simulate rescue scenarios resulting from a building collapse. Other props include a retired cargo tank that can be placed on its side to simulate a rollover accident and various compressed gas cylinders. The availability of a retired chlorine ton cylinder could be used to simulate a motor vehicle accident involving a truck carrying several of these cylinders and a school bus. Although these containers are extremely durable, the potential exists for a release during a major accident that would easily expose numerous people to an extremely dangerous chemical and who would need to be decontaminated prior to receiving medical care. 

For the purposes of evaluating the crews’ performance in a mass-decontamination incident, individuals representing ambulatory patients can be used; when possible, mannequins should be used to represent nonambulatory victims.           

Anyone who has ever supervised a training program knows that some participants will show up totally unprepared. This often is the result of their lack of time-management skills and the failure of the exercise planners to adequately communicate the exercise requirements to the participants.  To ensure success, exercise designers must inform stakeholders several weeks, if not months, in advance what they must have available during the exercise and follow up during the planning process to ensure that “nothing slips through the cracks.”  

The best way to do this is to provide each stakeholder with a written document that clearly states the agency’s roles and responsibilities, individual performance objectives, and the resources necessary to achieve success. The document should include reasonable and achievable milestone dates. The exercise designers must then contact each individual stakeholder representative on the various milestone dates to determine the status of preparations. Remember that everyone involved is likely busy with their own responsibilities and the exercise you are planning is not likely to be at the top of their agenda. Without proper follow-up, there is a good chance that on the day of the exercise you may wind up with a multitude of excuses for the absence of necessary personnel and equipment.

Questions or comments on this or any other monthly Hazardous Materials Survival Tip may be directed to Steven De Lisi at     

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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