Why we need to throw out the script in large-scale incident training

Allowing cops to leave the carefully-crafted training script may not always conclude the way the brass would like, but that is truly the best way for cops to learn

Responding to active threats from a multi-agency perspective is challenging, to say the least. Many agencies have done their homework and have trained their officers in the NIMS and ICS federal standards to meet these challenges. However, all too often when it comes down to large-scale training events failure in communication and understanding each agency’s role within multiple responding agencies often prevents a good response to the incident.

Understanding the Unified Command and Incident Command strategies are vital for success. These tactics provide a solid base line for managing such incidents. But these management tactics aren’t all that is needed for preparation for large-scale multi-agency response.

My experience with large-scale, complex training events which involved secured government complexes, military installations, schools, hospitals, EMS, fire, and law enforcement is that a lot of money, time, and manpower are wasted on a very sterile day of training.

Flaws in Training
Many of us have been in training that consists of a lot of “hurry up and wait” — this can translate into a slowed response in a real-world critical response. Often times, that is due to leaders “catching up” with old friends more than aggressively pressing the training. The fact is that large-scale training is vital for those persons responsible at the upper level of management to learn how to coordinate for that type of incident. They can’t get good experience until they are faced with the challenges that come with large numbers of people and problems. Mostly, during large-scale training exercises command will get valuable logistical experience.

Most of us grunts could care less about the many challenges command has to overcome logistically. However, their response — much like the first responders’ response — is critical to a successful conclusion of any large-scale incident. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai were a classic example of a complete failure by command staff to effectively coordinate a large-scale response.

What often gets lost during large-scale training is keeping the focus on the first responders. Typically, uniformed officers, tactical teams, fire, and EMS are given scripts in advance that spell out what lies ahead. As cops and fire respond during the exercise, proctors will steer the problems and challenges faced by the first responders so that the response stays on script. All this isn’t necessarily bad, but does it effectively prepare everybody for the challenges they may face? Does this type of training really provide real-world response to large-scale active shooter and terrorists incidents?

Since 9/11, the increase in large-scale multi-agency training that has occurred for all first responders has increased our response to such events greatly. The response to the Boston bombing is a great example of effective large-scale multi-agency response.

Course Correction
Law enforcement can make improvements to large-scale training exercises in several areas. The focus should always start with the first responders. Let the initial responders actions unfold even when it doesn’t follow the script. As the response continues, allow command to respond as needed. I have found that leaving the training script often delivers realistic training.

Allowing cops to leave the carefully-crafted training script may not always conclude the way the brass would like, but that is truly the best way for cops to learn. A great deal of humility will be required for the commanders when mistakes are made. The reason why training exercise planners and command hate leaving the script is because typically, the police chiefs, captains, and news media are spectators to the training event and they don’t want to look as if they are not prepared for such an incident. This is where command must suck it up, critique the response of officers so that they learn from their mistakes, hit the reset button and soldier on.

Many training planners do a great job incorporating first responders and the logistical demands in their training script, but many forget to incorporate other vital units into the training. The Boston Bombing and Mumbai incidents taught us that it is also very critical that investigative units and intelligence units receive the same large-scale multi agency training as the first responders and command officers receive. These units are very important when an attack is prolonged and continues for hours — or even days — after the initial attack.

Large-scale multi-agency training is necessary, and this type of training develops sound tactics and policies between numerous agencies as they respond to large-scale incidents. The lessons learned can set a foundation for officers responding to any incident that requires coordination and joint efforts from numerous agencies.

Command should allow mistakes to be made so that important lessons can be gained. Investigative and intelligence units should be involved so that they too can lay a foundation of communication and cooperation with their comrades from other agencies. 

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