This is what millions of Americans are doing every weekend now across the country. They will continue to engage in activities that cause work for public safety professionals for the next six months. Everyone is tired of being ‘cooped up’ at home and they are ready to get outdoors.
The reality for us is this: the alarm bell goes off and that innocent float trip turns into a water rescue; or, that camp fire causes a forest fire. Here we go!
Now is not the time to get complacent and get caught with your ‘turn-out’ pants down.
Preparation for any emergency begins well before the alarm bell rings. Along with regular drills and practice for the standard calls for service, like fire and car accidents, you should also prepare for anything that is also out of the ordinary for your agency. You never want to be caught unprepared.
If your agency is very skilled at structural firefighting and rescue work, ask yourself “when is the last time we had a Hazmat incident, a collapsed building or a water rescue?” Have you practiced doing something that you rarely do? The First Place to Practice: Table Top Exercises
If you have recently taken an Incident Command class, you should be well versed in the benefit of conducting a Table Top exercise. This is a great way to walk through an emergency situation and talk amongst your crew and supervisors about how you will deal with an emergent event, especially if it is something that you don’t normally respond to.
If you are working in a standard shift environment where you may not see folks from other days of the week, think about using video recording equipment to document what you learned and have each shift conduct the same exercise and tape it. That way you can interact without causing a lot of overtime. It also gives you the ability to make sure that every crew is on the same page about how you will respond as an agency and team.
This will also give you an opportunity to collectively examine your response procedures and polices amongst each shift to see if there are problems.
From Table Top to an Actual Drill
Once each crew has completed the Table Top exercise you can practice in an actual drill setting. Remember to use your assigned ICS command elements to test them as exercise features. Doing this will give you more opportunity to practice command and control techniques, and test your radio equipment simultaneously and ensure interoperability within your organization and with neighboring agencies.
Don’t forget to break out that specialized equipment you bought last year and ensure that everything is in working order before the actual call comes in when you really need to be proficient with it. Do those dry suits fit? How fast can you set up your portable shelter? How fast can that inflatable boat be put into the water? Has that remote camera been checked out in a simulated collapsed building? This is your time to test all of it. Not when the crisis is in full swing.
The After Action Debrief: What did you Learn?
Recognize that in this business, nothing goes according to plan, and you are fallible. You will make mistakes. The best place to make a mistake is in practice. The lessons learned are huge. The old adage that “the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat” is very true.
After you have completed your Table Top and Full-Scale exercises, look back at what mistakes were made. Also look at what went according to your plan. This is the time when everyone can freely speak their mind about how they thought things went — good or bad. Take notes.
Looking at your Written Policies
Your response plans are living documents. Make annual changes if they are warranted. If your policy works, leave it alone. Remember: you are going to have to live by your written policies, good or bad, especially if a mistake is made. Make sure your written policies are an accurate reflection of your capabilities. Your exercise de-brief will give you good information about how well you can respond to calls for service, even unique ones.
Cross Training Opportunities
In the ‘real’ world of public safety, illnesses happen, people take time off for vacations and so on. Don’t overlook the opportunity to cross-train your staff. Let folks experience different jobs within the organization. Ever wonder why many fire agencies want new recruits to be certified EMTs when they are hired? Ever wonder why every Marine is a basic rifleman? The answer is so they become ‘Force Multipliers’ in emergencies.
Here Comes the Sun
Preparedness activities need to happen all year long and not just seasonally. If you plan for the worse case scenario, you will be successful when the ‘balloon’ goes up. Look at your agency policies, practice and have regular exercises. Look at how you can enhance your team through cross-training skills. The goal is to be as ready as you can to be the best for your community.
Mark D. Reese is a retired Sgt. from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office in Eugene, Oregon. He was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT with McKenzie Fire and Rescue in Walterville, Oregon. Reese has a BA in Management and he has graduated from numerous Emergency Management courses as well as the FEMA Professional Development Series, PDS. He is currently an Emergency Management graduate student at American Military University.