Published On: April 5, 2023

Every emergency yields lessons for improvement – lessons that need to go beyond the identification stage and be truly ‘learned’ if we are to avoid repeated failure.  Effective training and exercising are critical tools for ensuring that lessons are identified, learned and embedded in improved response capabilities.  Joe Pearson MSc MEPS (former Associate of the Emergency Planning College and Director of A2Z Resilience Ltd) draws on over 20 years of experience supporting significant events and  delivering training throughout the UK and overseas to explain the 10 ‘Golden Rules’ for getting training and exercising right.

In 2013, the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat commissioned a review of ‘Persistent Lessons Identified Relating to Interoperability from Emergencies and Major Incidents since 1986’. The ‘Pollock Report’, as it is now known, identified persistent issues affecting the interoperability of emergency responders, with reference to the guiding framework of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) – known as The Interoperability Framework. Most recently, the Cabinet Office published the UK Resilience, Lessons Digest that looks at the resilience communities’ experience of national, regional and local exercises and sets out to highlight common challenges and areas for improvement when delivering exercises. This references the published Manchester Arena Inquiry, (Volume Two) which made several recommendations on the emergency response following the attack in 2017.

Despite these documents being published ten years apart, what they have in common is that many of the issues raised relate to challenges in identifying, recording and responding to lessons learned from emergency exercises. Without effective and robust training and exercising, it is likely that future reviews of emergencies will raise the same issues, despite there being effective methodologies to embed learning from past events.

There is a legal requirement to get this right. Responders have a duty under the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), as the legislative framework for civil protection in the United Kingdom. Section 2(1)(d) of the Act placed a legal requirement on Category 1 responders to maintain emergency plans. The purpose of these emergency plans includes ensuring, as far as reasonably practicable, that a Category 1 responder can perform its function to respond to, reduce, control or mitigate the effect of an emergency if it occurs. Every emergency plan maintained by a general Category 1 responder must include provision for carrying out exercises to ensure that the plan is effective and ensuring appropriate staff are available and sufficiently trained.

The Interoperability Framework seeks to ensure that emergency services can work together effectively, helped by training and awareness products to ensure a common approach. It is self-evident that JESIP only works if everyone is on board, which can only be fully achieved through practical training and exercises, and by keeping staff skills and knowledge current through refresher training.

Fundamental to any exercise is the principle of ‘train as you operate’. In other words, the training environment should mirror real life as closely as possible. However, trainees are frequently heard to say, ‘if this were for real, I would do it differently’. Exercising is too often viewed as an artificial process, or one that senior staff especially fail to recognise the importance of, or prioritise their attendance at. However, recognising the importance and value of training and exercising only at the point of a disaster inquiry is too late.

To clarify those terms, ‘training’ provides practitioners with the requisite knowledge and skills to respond effectively to an emergency; whilst ‘exercising’ tests and validates how those practitioners manage the response to an incident taken from a risk register. Exercises are a critical tool that can enhance understanding of plans, allow members to improve their performance, and identify opportunities to improve capability to respond to real events. Too often, training is the end of the process and the critical element of exercising is lost. Consequently, lessons learned are not properly integrated into response protocols.

Designing and developing exercises can be challenging, as there is often a mixture of personnel involved with varying levels of experience, e.g., self-taught or with limited knowledge of how to write effective exercises. The lack of a standard or readily-accessed workable model is a key contributory factor to this.

Even without a standard model, we have identified 10 “Golden Rules” that, if followed by training and exercise practitioners, would greatly support mitigating these development challenges:

  1. Training is a function of clear leadership and must always be driven from the top down. Managers at all levels are responsible for training the people they are responsible for. They must ensure delivery of training which is challenging, effective, and as safe as reasonably possible. It is also essential to ‘model’ the importance of the training by attending sessions when invited. Training must have clear aims and SMART objectives, articulated and supported by leadership and providing clear direction for those planning and undertaking training.
  2. Observer Mentors should be experienced, knowledgeable and trained such that observations are objective and lead to actionable recommendations. Supporting the objectives should be Performance Indicators (PIs) that can be developed to support training assessments and ensure that what is done should is measured; what is measured is analysed; and what is analysed is acted upon.
  3. Training must reflect operational approaches as this contains the fundamental principles that guide how an organisation behaves. Operational approaches provide a common outlook and a uniform basis for action, but only if individuals and organisations reflect that approach in their knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviour.
  4. Training must help develop decision-making skills that can be drawn upon during major incidents, when staff must be resourceful, clear-thinking and innovative. The operational environment can be challenging and complex, meaning decision-making skills at all levels are vital, and that a joined-up response is critical.
  5. Training must be challenging, exciting and relevant, and promoted as a positive activity that increases rather than undermines skills and confidence. Each successive element in a training programme should be more difficult but never overwhelming. Training must also be relevant, and should look at emerging practices, new legislation, approaches or procedures.
  6. Training must be realistic and as safe as possible – realistic by always being set against credible scenarios and contexts linked to the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) and Community Risk Registers (CRR); as safe as possible by adhering to safety regulations.
  7. Training is a continuous and progressive process and a logical approach is to build from individual training, through team training to collective training, in a progressively sophisticated and challenging way. Multi-agency training should also be included. Finally, there should be regular refresher training to mitigate ‘skill fade’, and allow for personnel turnover
  8. Training material and methods must be continuously reviewed for their effectiveness, and this is the responsibility of the organisation’s training and development teams. It is also incumbent upon both training practitioners and training audiences to provide honest feedback on the training activity and its effectiveness. Feedback should be captured and provided to training and development teams to allow for intelligent training development.
  9. The organisation and training audience should be encouraged to learn from the experience of their mistakes. It will be necessary to apply both formative judgements of performance, where error and failure are used as teaching points, and summative assessments, where an absolute performance standard must be met. Determining the cause of failure but not attributing blame is a key principle for allowing positive iteration during training.
  10. Training must be optimised by drawing on feedback and lessons learned to inform further development. In this context, three audiences need to be aware of lessons learned from training: first, the individual or team undergoing training; second, the trainers themselves; and third, the organisation that planned and delivered the training. This organisational audience is frequently overlooked, but to remain agile against the evolving character of potential operations, the training organisation must learn and adapt from top to bottom.

A key challenge in emergency response training in the UK is that training is not governed or independently assured by relevant authorities within and outside training audiences. All responders need to maintain the highest standards of performance and safety. For training to be effective, it must challenge those undertaking it, and it will best serve responders by mentally and physically equipping them to handle the myriad future challenges. To do this, we must be creative and innovative in our approach to training. Training must be designed to allow participants to make and learn from mistakes in a positive learning environment. Failure in training is acceptable and often necessary if future performance is to be improved. The overarching principle that ‘training is a function of leadership’ is pre-eminent in the list of principles outlined here. If the full value of training and exercising is to be realise, then leaders at all levels should be familiar with, and accountable for the adherence to the principles in their own organisations.

Returning to the opening issue outlined in this article – that issues highlighted in emergency response reviews have had a tendency to resurface – it is imperative that training and exercising draws on the lessons learned and enables responders to continually improve their capabilities to prevent this happening. Emergency response is demanding, but effective and robust training and exercising is essential to embed learning and grow wider response capability and capacity. These 10 Golden Rules provide a foundation for ensuring that lessons identified translate into lessons learned.  If they fail to do so, we will end up revisiting these reoccurring themes time and time again.

Share this story

Related posts