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Training Day
Making the most of simulations

Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy
Using simulations is an effective method for conducting emergency training because it brings reality to the training at comfortable cost. The law enforcement community and the military have developed simulation training to a very high level. One such example is the Navy’s damage control simulators for both ships and submarines. These provide a realistic engine room environment including the sounds characteristic of engine room operations. Designed to train personnel in damage control procedures the simulator can recreate anything from a minor leak to complete flooding of the simulated engine room compartment. The damage situation is monitored and controlled through a closed circuit television system that records the events. A drain system can rapidly empty the flooded compartment in the event of an emergency. Imagine the cost and time involved to do these exercises as live drills. This concept can simulate whatever types of hazards are pertinent to a facility.

The use of state of the art simulation training that addresses an ever increasing variety of training needs, such as that in use by the military, is becoming more prevalent in the fire and emergency services.

Simulation training can and should be conducted throughout all levels of an organization; from the members of the fire brigade tasked with responding to an incident, throughout all levels of management, including those who would ultimately have overall responsibility in the case of a large scale emergency. While the various levels of an organization can be trained/tested together this is not necessarily preferable, or in some cases even desirable, as long as every aspect of the incident in question is eventually addressed. Upper management participation is critical to successful operations. Even if the fire brigade executes flawlessly they will still be unsuccessful if middle management does not provide the appropriate support or upper management has chosen an inappropriate course of action.

In the classic book on decision making, Sources of Power, Gary Klein stresses the effectiveness of simulations stating that, “A good simulation can sometimes provide more training value than direct experience.”  Part of the reasoning behind this statement is that even those with an exceptional amount of experience will not experience every type of emergency that they have the potential to face and will probably (and hopefully) never experience what they would consider a “worst case scenario.” Simulations can assist in filling those gaps.

This type of training can be as simple as a series of pictures of a developing scenario presented with PowerPoint; or as complicated as a full scale multi-organization exercise conducted on site or using elaborate simulators at a training academy.


Simulations for Management

As was previously stated simulation training should include every level of management. When faced with a major emergency it is unrealistic to expect an optimal outcome if those who participated in the emergency training are not those who will ultimately be making the decisions.

Table top exercises at their simplest level can be conducted with a script of the scenario (potential emergency) that is being addressed. As a facilitator reveals the scenario contained in the script the participants deploy their resource on the tabletop mockup. While this is still a viable option and a good starting point a much more realistic atmosphere can be achieved through the use of simulation techniques and technology. 

This exercise could be conducted in an organization’s existing Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or an area designated as such. During the simulation, inter- and intra-agency communication should be conducted in the same manner and with the same equipment that would be utilized during an actual operation, i.e. radio, alarm/notification system or phone. Depending on the scope of the simulation the person on the other end of the communication may be an actual representative of the organization or one of the simulators (person managing the simulation). This communication can test such items as: radio and frequency compatibility, verifying existing points of care, testing mutual aid agreements, etc. Communication is generally believed to be one of the major problems in incidents involving numerous participants. For purposes of the simulation, participants should obtain the data pertinent for decision making, such as weather or data from equipment in place to monitor the facility’s operating systems, and provide the data to those conducting the simulation. 

If the EOC is equipped with closed circuit television additional visual simulations can be included to add realism to the scenario. This can include smoke, leaking gases and spills, victims with mock injuries, wreckage and video of mock TV news announcements.

Simulations for Responders

Numerous types of simulators can be used to train personnel at the responder level. These simulators can replicate fire, confined space emergencies, hazardous material releases, pumper operator challenges and more. The Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy (GCERA) considers a large portion of  training to be scenario based. Instead of training on an individual project such as a well head or a loading station, the majority of  projects are combined into a single area of the academy. This allows the simulation to be conducted as a full scenario instead of one task. 

This full scenario could be the final phase of a training cycle. For example, if conducting a refresher confined space rescue training, the team can first train in the individual components such as knots and patient packaging and build up to a full scenario in a confined space simulator. 

An example of cyclical training is the Fire Department of New York’s annual training on the Buckeye pipeline. This pipeline carries aviation fuel to John F. Kennedy International Airport and La Guardia International Airport. The pipeline begins in New Jersey and travels through the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Every year, the FDNY conducts cyclical training on this pipeline over a period of several months. The cycle starts with familiarization drills where fire companies visit the entire section of pipeline, including the valves for which they are responsible, and review procedures. Next are division drills. A simulation is conducted in a limited geographic area. Hose lines are stretched, valve covers are opened, wrenches are placed on isolation valves and the pipeline is patrolled. Finally there are borough drills. These are multi-agency simulations where the Buckeye Pipeline Company actually drains product to set off the pipelines alarm system and role players transmit scripted radio reports.  In response, the FDNY isolates the indicated sections of pipeline and the drill terminates with the Buckeye Pipeline Company mobilizing equipment to repair the simulated leak. 

Cyclical training is a good way to refresh on basic skills and then to apply those skills during a realistic simulation. 


Training should be more than just a “necessary evil” conducted solely to fulfill government mandated industry requirements. Plan to include simulation training as part of your overall risk management strategy.  This is particularly important when preparing for a low probability but high impact incident.  By definition these are events with which responders likely have little or no experience. Even when an incident is less likely, if the consequences could potentially result in the failure of the company, they should be addressed to assure the company’s long term sustainability. In the case of an incident affecting a large geographic area the ability of a company to continue functioning can actually transform an unfortunate incident into an opportunity. This opportunity occurs when the company can fill a need other less prepared companies have left unfilled. 

The downside is that training such as this can sometimes be difficult to justify. It can be looked at as an added expense with no perceived return. Metrics to assess a company’s financial status, such as measuring an increase in production, are readily available. Metrics that measure potential “negative results” such as risk management are not as well developed and the results are not as easily accepted. 

Simulation training can be conducted in numerous formats and it can be used to bring all training together after having learned the basics. Simulations realistically test existing response plans and can develop relationships and establish compatibilities that will be invaluable should they ever be needed in reality.C


James Kiesling is a captain with the Fire Department of New York’s Special Operations Command. He holds a bachlor of arts in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an associates degree in occupational studies in fire protection technology from Corning Community College.



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