Practice makes perfect when it comes to emergency response

Emergency services
All large-scale emergencies require organisations that are formally separate during their day-to-day operations to work together for a limited period of time. Exercises, therefore, allow for the rehearsal of collaboration.
Dr Ben Anderson
Researchers have provided fresh insights into how well-designed exercises can help to ensure effective, coordinated responses to large-scale emergencies. The results of a new study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), suggest that when it comes to emergency response, practice makes perfect.

There are countless examples of large-scale emergencies that would necessitate coordinated, multi-organisational responses. Possible scenarios range from terrorist attacks to flu pandemics. The authors of the new report estimate that the United Kingdom’s ‘resilience community’ – comprising emergency services, local authorities, central government departments and agencies, and numerous commercial organisations – conducts thousands of emergency-response exercises every year. These drills represent a vital tool in the continual effort to keep Britain ‘emergency ready’.

To learn more about the planning that goes into emergency-response exercises and to identify ways in which the design of such exercises might be improved, Durham University’s Dr Ben Anderson and Royal Holloway, University of London’s Dr Peter Adey interviewed emergency service personnel from across the UK. During the course of their research, the pair also directly observed training exercises in action. They used their findings to create white papers and user guides to help organisations to optimise emergency-response training exercises.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Dr Anderson explained why these exercises are so valuable, and outlined some examples of best practice within the field of emergency-response training…

Do you think that enough emergency-response exercises are currently being conducted in the UK?
That is a difficult question to answer. I think that overall, when you consider that the UK’s resilience community operates across numerous levels, sufficient numbers of exercises are being carried out. Of course, these numbers are only sufficient if the exercises are being conducted properly. Assuming that they are, however, I think that there is enough training taking place to ensure that the relevant people possess an adequate range of generic capabilities. Obviously, the number of exercises is not the most important factor. The real question rests upon whether these exercises are being conducted in an appropriate manner.

Why are these exercises so beneficial? How do they help to increase the likelihood of an effective response in the event of a genuine emergency?
There are three main reasons. Firstly, emergency-response exercises enable separate organisations to rehearse how they will work together in an actual emergency. All large-scale emergencies require organisations that are formally separate during their day-to-day operations to work together for a limited period of time. Exercises, therefore, allow for the rehearsal of collaboration. They give different organisations the opportunity to work together, both formally, in terms of enabling various protocols or communication procedures to be used, and informally, in terms of getting to know the organisational culture of other bodies. Secondly, exercises allow the various components of emergency-response strategies to be tested practically; to see whether or not the procedures that have been put in place will work in actuality. Essentially, organisations have the chance to test their plans before the real event. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, exercises train people in the competencies that are necessary to make decisions and to undertake action within stressful, pressured emergency situations.

I understand that as part of your research, you observed some emergency-response exercises directly. How effective were these exercises in replicating real-life emergencies?
The exercises were mostly successful in this respect. It is possible, for example, for well-designed exercises to replicate the conditions under which people will act. In particular, they are effective at simulating the stresses and pressures brought about by real-life emergencies. A scenario might require certain decisions to be made, and those decisions are time limited. They must be taken within the context of uncertain or confusing information, which is introduced deliberately. Exercises are also good at replicating the inter-organisational processes around which emergency responses are organised. They force different organisations to come together in order to undertake the procedures that would be necessary in a real emergency.

Where exercises can sometimes be less effective, however, is in sustaining feelings of stress and pressure. People can switch off, especially when the exercises do not sufficiently stretch participants. These drills are not so effective if they are designed around a simple problem that is easy to deal with; where the people involved have seen it all before and know exactly what to do. In this situation, participants will do things in a routine way. The exercise will not take them out of their comfort zone.

So finally, could you outline some of the elements that represent good practice when it comes to emergency planning?
First of all, the involvement of all participating organisations in the initial planning phase is vital; that should be self evident. Secondly, exercises should be designed to stretch participants. They should include the types of risk that would have to be faced in the event of a real emergency. In particular, the scenarios should be created in such a way that all organisations have to play an important role in the response. Thirdly, the exercises should link to a wider regime of training. Whilst the aims and objectives should be clearly delineated, these exercises shouldn’t be viewed as one offs. Their goals should be embedded within a wider context.

In terms of the actual conduct of an exercise, it must be ensured that all participants follow procedures and protocols correctly. In other words, people shouldn’t be allowed to take shortcuts or drift off because it’s an exercise. Achieving this situation requires effective leadership. Specific lessons that have been learned during an exercise should be identified, both for individual organisations and for the network of organisations as a whole. Moreover, the lessons learned should lead to tangible, organisational changes. If all of these elements are present, an exercise can teach participants the skills that they will need in order to mount an effective response to a genuine, large-scale emergency.

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Thanks to ScienceOmega.com and Katy Edgington for a clear, well-written article. Looking forward to working with you again in the future.


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