The need for crisis preparedness training – thoughts from the Counter Terror Expo

By Claudia van den Heuvel

Having just returned from the Counter-Terror Expo in Olympia at the end of April, the theme that struck a chord with me repeatedly was, no matter how technologically advanced our surveillance and security systems are, true resilience and crisis preparedness will always lie within the skill-set of the crisis management team.

In a very interesting talk on human factors, Sally Turner and Julia Wilde of “User Perspective” illustrated the effect that human biases can have on the effectiveness of security surveillance. While technological ability is constantly being improved, I wonder if training of non-technical skills for performance under pressure, is given the same priority and developing at a similar pace?

Crucially, ensuring that an organisation is resilient and prepared for crisis response relies on having the right people, with the right skill set, in the right roles. Psychological research in other high risk domains, such as medicine, civil aviation, and nuclear power plant management, have identified a core set of “non-technical skills”[1] that any team must possess in order to function effectively. These are:

Situation Awareness –

  • Gathering and interpreting information
  • Understanding the bigger picture – now and potentially for the future

Decision Making – 

  • Defining, selecting and implementing options
  • Coping strategies to avoid errors and decision avoidance

Leadership – 

  • Identification of one person who is in control
  • Using authority to plan and prioritise resource

Teamwork – 

  • Clear, specific roles and responsibilities
  • Trust & support

Communication – 

  • Reduce fear of providing information and advice
  • Listening to others

How do we train these non-technical skills? By providing the Crisis Management Team with repeated exposure to highly realistic situations and an opportunity to actively develop and apply them in a safe learning environment.

As with any skillset, non-technical skills are acquired through repeated exposure to a situation in which they need to be applied – people learn by doing. According to the literature, individuals become an expert in a field after 10,000 hours of practicing a skill.

Fidelity, or how closely a training environment resembles the real life situation in which a person will need to apply their skills, is an all-important element of this skill acquisition.

Physical fidelity refers to the level of physical resemblance between the training environment and the real world – in this context, is the room in which the CMT is operating during the exercise, the same as that which would be used in a real incident? Simulated flight training suites used in the civil aviation industry are a prime example of training environments with very high physical fidelity.

UntitledPsychological fidelity refers to the extent to which the realistic pressures imposed on them during a real life crisis are simulated, so that participants experience the effects on their ability to function effectively on the emotional, cognitive and social level. Fidelity creates immersion – a sense of being so absorbed or engrossed in the simulated world that the “real world” becomes obliterated.

Another speaker at the Expo, Professor Jon Cole of Liverpool University, clearly illustrated the importance and effect of fidelity in a training environment. He described a research study undertaken with teams of tactical firearms officers where cognitive functioning was measured in teams wearing full body armour and being fired at with simunition. A clear effect was found – not only did participants’ heart rates shoot up when they were wearing the full “kit”, they were slower at making decisions, completing the task (of saving an injured officer) and were less able to remember the details of the environment they had been in.  This effect was much more pronounced than when teams did not wear the body armour, or even when blanks were used as opposed to live ammunition.

Untitled1

So what does this mean? It means that if we want our CMT’s to be as prepared as possible for effective crisis response, we need to:

  • Take into account the extreme effect that uncertainty, time pressure, risk and stress will have on a CMT’s ability to function
  • Expose CMT’s to these types of risks and pressures in exercises that simulate, as realistically as possible, the physical and psychological effects and pressures of a crisis
  • Provide the CMT with the opportunity to develop the crucial non-technical skills, which lie at the heart of effective crisis management, in a safe yet applied environment, in order to transfer those skills to real incidents if and when they occur.

 

Did you miss Claudia’s address on decision making in Strategic Command Teams at the Expo? – if so, you can view her presentation here 


[1] Flin, R. Sitting in the Hot Seat (1998).

About ClaudiavdHeuvel

Steelhenge Project Manager and co-author of Steelhenge's thought leadership series. With a PhD in crisis response, my specialist subjects include leadership, decision-making, exercises and terror attacks.

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