In the Southeast three years ago an emergency management director decided to spring a simulated terrorist attack during a county commission meeting. At a predetermined time, four people dressed as terrorists and carrying a simulated explosive device burst into the council chambers and waved weapons. One fired a shot (a blank), and they took the members hostage, threatening to detonate the explosives. The sheriff and a few commissioners were told about the drill a scant few minutes before the meeting but didn t know the details. The mayor was not informed and believed the attack and the explosives were real. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The director was suspended, and the state s Bureau of Investigation reviewed the matter.
In another incident in a major metropolitan area in the South in 1999, a SWAT team sniper had an unintentional discharge with his rifle in the parking lot following a simulation exercise. He was unaware his rifle was loaded despite the fact he had been looking at terrorists through his reticle throughout the exercise. Fortunately, there was no necessity to shoot one of those terrorists. Sadly, an incident almost identical to this one cost an officer his life in the Northeast in 2001 when the sniper actually did pull the trigger during the training exercise, killing the officer playing the role of a terrorist.
In the wake of the heightened security concerns following high-school shooting rampages and the terrorist attacks on the United States, many cities have begun setting up mock disasters to assist in the coordination of the various agencies tasked with emergency response functions. There s a lot involved in setting up even the most basic safe and effective training scenarios. Large-scale, multi-agency training scenarios are extremely complex with a lot of opportunity for danger, and they require thorough planning by people who understand the complexities. This article will touch on just a few of those complexities.
Major-Incident Training Safety Considerations
In reality based training (RBT) parlance, I refer to major-incident training scenarios as complex scenarios. Complex scenarios are just that complex. A complex scenario will utilize a large group of people loosely connected by a training mission. Because this large group doesn t often get the opportunity to train together as a functional unit, this automatically builds in some amount of chaos. The confusion that results from these agencies learning to work together is part of the learning process. Confusion is always the natural state that precedes higher-level organization. The safety officer must manage the confusion to ensure there are no serious injuries while this learning process occurs.
The rules for securing multiple-site and coordinated responses are roughly the same as those for working with smaller groups there just happen to be more (or larger) training sites. The following are non-negotiable.
Safety Inspections, Scripts & the Coordinator
You must perform physical safety inspections on all active participants and their possessions. You must physically search all locations where any simulation occurs. You must tightly script role players, and allow them to use only the training props specifically issued to them by training staff or approved following an inspection by the safety officer. Strictly prohibit improvisation outside of the script by role players. Designate a safety officer at each site where action will occur to ensure all necessary safety equipment is properly worn by participants.
Keep the safety officer apprised of all student movements so that their arrival at any training venue is never a surprise. Surprising bad guys in the real world is good surprising role players pretending to be bad guys in training is bad. We script the role players to act surprised to produce a useful level of realism. But busting through the door of a room in which role players are sitting around with their protective gear off is the fast track to unintended harm.
There must be a single overall safety coordinator intimately involved in the planning and execution of the exercises so that they are aware of any and all aspects of any planned activities at the various sites. The safety coordinator selects and oversees the safety officers.
Pyrotechnics, Ammunition & Access
A large, West Coast agency was performing some special-operations training and wanted to simulate a pipe bomb. They made the simulator out of a piece of PVC pipe and put an M80-style firecracker inside that was supposed to go off in the event the team inadvertently tripped the device. The first time it went off, it was unimpressive. In order to jazz things up a bit, the training staff decided to put some flour inside to create a visual effect. Can you say fuel-air bomb? Fortunately, no one was injured, and several lessons were learned about playing around with pyrotechnics without the EOD guys present.
Any pyrotechnics you might deploy as a special effect (e.g., booby traps, explosion simulators or improvised explosive devices) must be used under controlled conditions and either placed or activated by a professional trained in the use of those pyrotechnics. When it comes to using any type of pyrotechnics, use extreme caution. Even relatively experienced people have had close calls with pyrotechnics.
Any pyrotechnic devices emergency responders might deploy must be approved in advance by the safety coordinator prior to their delivery to the actual training site, and the on-site safety officer must know how they will be deployed. If you will use devices such as noise-flash diversionary devices with live role players, permit only those pyrotechnics approved for use during LTE (live target engagement) exercises, such as those produced by flashbang.com. Teams still using operational distraction devices against live role players are tempting fate. Far too many role players have been injured using these devices in training, and they are unnecessary in achieving your training objective.
Allow the use of blank ammunition only if you ve carefully considered its use and tightly structured the rules of engagement. Use full-power blanks only to create a realistic sound effect, never in force-on-force exercises without the use of blank firing attachments (BFAs), and then only under strict rules of engagement. Strictly prohibit shotgun blanks for pointing and firing directly at other people.
Restrict access to the operational area to ensure unknown persons do not enter the area because that could pose extreme hazards to all participants. All bona-fide participants must have some sort of visible identifier so that everyone can quickly identify someone who is not supposed to be in the area. During a multi-site training exercise conducted by a prominent law enforcement training company several years ago, a teenage son of one of the trainers came to visit and watch the training. He wandered over to one of the training sites and told the site controller he had been sent to be a role player. He was instructed to hide in a closet and surrender when the team found him. He was not wearing adequate protective gear for the active-scenario area, but he wasn t supposed to get shot. When the team members found him, one of them overreacted to the surprise in the closet and shot him in the head with a marking cartridge. Fortunately, he was not seriously hurt.
Inform & Debrief
A tragedy involving two military special-operations personnel and a local law enforcement officer occurred outside a military base on the East Coast during the mid-1990s. The military personnel were on a month-long escape-and-evade training mission out in the local community. The exercise had regularly been held without incident, but in this instance, a local law enforcement officer unaware of the training exercise initiated a traffic stop on the two soldiers for suspicious behavior. Believing this was part of the exercise, one of the soldiers attempted to disarm the officer. He was shot and killed by the officer, and the other soldier was wounded.
On the West Coast in the late 1990s, a simulated jail takeover was set to occur. Unfortunately, those performing the takeover never informed the personnel on duty, and some of the employees were traumatized to the point of medical retirement.
Inform all nearby agencies of an impending exercise, and contact them both at its initiation and conclusion. Ideally, you should have a representative from each agency present at the control center to function as a liaison. Everyone likely to be located inside the operational area must know an exercise is underway so that there are no emotional, psychological or physical casualties created in the wake of people thinking the exercise is really happening.
Finally, at the conclusion of any scenario, conduct a thorough debrief not only to rate the performance of the responders, but also to discuss any possible safety hazards so you can avoid them in future complex scenarios.
Do the Work
With the growing popularity of emergency response training, the complexities and dangers inherent in such exercises continue to grow. The number of tragedies connected to complex scenarios, field training exercises and mock disasters will also continue to rise without strict safety guidelines and coordination by people trained in the art and science of high-level and complex-scenario training.
As with other areas of RBT, we can no longer afford to have these exercises set up and run by enthusiastic amateurs. The consequences of not having the experience and skills can prove dire. Do the work there are lives in the balance.
Until next time, train hard and train safe.