Major incidents can involve many elements not generally associated with “normal” emergency operations. These operations can cover long periods of time, involve multiple agencies, be multi-jurisdictional, require the inclusion of government representatives and the media, and are heavy on logistics.

Training for a major incident should be conducted using a building block approach. As the scope of the exercise increases, it may also increase in difficulty. Building block do not just refer to the individual skills but also to the various units and agencies (fitting the various components). In a unit responsible for high angle rescue, some of the individual training blocks are: patient care, hauling and lowering systems, and patient packaging. These skills could then be built upon by creating a high angle scenario combining these skills. This knowledge could then be tested as a component of a large scale exercise.

 The FDNY uses this building block approach in annual drills focusing on an incident involving the Buckeye Pipeline (a target of a thwarted terrorist plot in 2007). This pipeline carries gasoline and 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. Starting with familiarization drills, 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 pipeline’s alarm system and role players transmit scripted radio reports. In response the FDNY actually isolates the indicated sections of pipeline and the drill terminates with Buckeye Pipeline mobilizing equipment to repair the simulated leak.

There are many types of exercises that can be utilized to train for major incidents, but they can be broadly categorized as those that do and do not involve the deployment of actual resources and manpower. These can be stand-alone exercises or can also follow a building block approach culminating in a large scale exercise. When utilizing a building block approach, the first exercises will be discussion based. These can be to set the initial parameters of an upcoming exercise or to fine tune particular components. I have sat in on several of these as a SME (subject matter expert) representing the FDNY Special Operations companies perspective. When a portion of the exercise would come up involving these companies, the chief running the discussion would ask me about our capabilities and what some of the likely responses of the company would be to the scenario as presented.

The next block can often be the table top exercise. Various upper echelon decision makers should participate in this level of training. These can come from industry, fire and police, military, or government. It is crucial to get this participation. When a facility is confronted with a major incident it is not realistic to expect a “happy ending” to occur if those who participated in these tabletop exercises are not those who will ultimately be making the decisions. In the tabletop exercise, a scenario is presented and the participants make decisions regarding the deployment and actions of their forces and a facilitator feeds back results.

Next are exercises where manpower and equipment are actually deployed. These can occur on many levels, from the most basic which is a drill, all the way up to the most complex which is a full scale exercise. Drills generally consist of a single agency and entail a particular operation of that agency while full scale exercises involve multiple agencies and jurisdictions and can entail many functions.

Planning Exercises

When planning a full scale exercise establish what you expect to accomplish. Some examples of common goals are: to determine the compatibility of communications, equipment and procedures; to establish responsibilities and identify gaps; to determine partner’s capabilities; and to build relationships. The FEMA, MEPP (Master Exercise Practitioners Program) recommends that you further clarify your goals using the acronym SMART.

Simple – A common tendency is to want to test all of your capabilities in one exercise. You should limit your focus.

Measurable – Is there a criterion to determine whether or not your goals have been met?

Achievable – When conducting training expectations should match the abilities of those being trained. Realistic – The scenario should represent a real world possibility.

Task oriented – Goals should emphasize operations.

After you have establishing your goals, you should write the scenario. This is your storyline containing the what, where, why, when and how of the exercise. Beyond this there are many specifics to be addressed that are beyond the scope of this article.

 Post Exercise

In the aftermath of these exercises you should conduct an after action review. Variations of this are also known as debriefings, hot washes, etc. These are conducted in order to maximize your learning potential. Immediately following the exercise, representatives of the various participating agencies should be heard as well as those personnel facilitating and evaluating the exercise. This can often be followed by an after action report containing such items as an overview of the exercise and a list of tasks to sustain and to improve.

I have a diverse experience encompassing both real world major incidents such as commercial airliner Flight 587 that crashed in Queens, the World Trade Center Collapse, and several international incidents such as Hurricane George in the Dominican Republic and the earthquake in Haiti. I have participated in training for major incidents with various levels of government agencies, industry and the military. From this experience, I believe that in addition to testing your basic operational capabilities, test and develop logistics, communications and relationships.

Any ranking member of the military will tell you that logistics is a key element in an operation of any magnitude. Without beans, bullets and bandaids, one will not accomplish much. This entails not only providing equipment for emergency operations but also encompasses items such as fuel, water, food, shelter, transportation and communication.

Another essential element of a successful operation is communication. History shows that this is one of the capacities susceptible to failure. This failure can occur through various means such as incompatible communications equipment, inconsistent terminology, the lack of established POCs, and the general communications failures associated with a disaster.

Developing relationships with the potential players operating a large scale incident is arguably the most important element that you can develop. Many of the communications and logistics problems mentioned above can be solved here. Logistically developing these relationships helps determine who you will provide items such as food and shelter. These relationships also provide an opportunity to test the compatibility of items such as fittings on fire hydrants, hose and pumpers.

On the communications side, developing relationships identifies the correct contact person to rectify equipment incompatibilities and establishes standard terminology. In addition to solving communications and logistics problems, these relationships enable decisionmakers to know their partners’ capabilities.

The FDNY has many industrial partners and the relationships work both ways. For example, at a confirmed report of a worker buried in a trench collapse, Con Ed (a local utility company) automatically notified and dispatches two vacuum trucks for use in victim extrication. The FDNY has tools that are compatible with and can only be used with these trucks. Con Ed also routinely sends a vacuum truck to participate every time we run a trench rescue course. Finally when disaster strikes is not the optimal time to develop a new relationship. It is much better to look up and see friends.

A good reference for planning large scale exercises is the FEMA Emergency Management Institutes, MEPP (Master Exercise Practitioners Program), portions of which are availableonline.

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