Our current working environment, and the systems we employ for training staff, to meet the threats and challenges of emergency response, are continually in the spotlight of review and assessment. More often than not, this assessment is framed within the question of “What went wrong on the day?”
It may be more sensible to consider what might have gone wrong many months or years prior to the incident, in regard to training and assessment systems and their relationship to the actual operating environment. More importantly is the question of whether this can ever be right when there are so many competing priorities, governance timelines and perspectives relating to training to meet risk.
Systems of review are quick to recognise where failings are perceived to have occurred and where improvements could have been be made. This post-event and pressure-free process often does so without recognising the key challenges responding agencies face and more importantly where their legislative and cultural starting point is in relation to engaging in response actions while mitigating risk to responders.
Fundamentally, all emergency responders have the same overarching role of public safety but they are legislated and mandated to achieve different objectives within that role, e.g. public order, medical treatment and fire and rescue.
As a result, responding organisations have systematically different starting points for action, which have been established by tradition, legislation and regulation which are key factors in establishing organisational culture and risk appetite. These starting points, and where they lead, are constantly challenged through the legal process, and other systems of enquiry, and contribute to setting the organisational policy for taking action when responding to emergencies. With a need to meet the organisational mandate within the framework of public safety there is a key requirement for having safety of staff and working systems at the forefront of thinking when working in any risk environment.
This position if further entrenched by the training and guidance doctrine that is formed on past events and review processes that ensures training is delivered within set parameters and is designed to manage staff exposure to risk while implementing retrospective organisational learning, i.e. training staff to pass standards to meet organisational legislative requirements rather than meeting the environmental and dynamic incident risks.
Clearly, training and assessment systems need to be implemented that serve both operational incident requirements (keeping responders safe) and fulfil obligations to plan, prepare, build resilience and comply with safety and other legislation (i.e. keeping the organisation itself safe).
While these systems take a great deal of time and resource to support, it is critical that the delivery of training happens in an environment that supports organisational business continuity. In other words, failure to achieve standards is not something that organisations can support from a business continuity or financial standpoint. As a result of extending periods between training or refresher sessions and the methods of delivery we arrive at a double dilemma, wherein the volume and richness of experience is lessened, and we diminish our ability to effectivley assess progress of staff understanding of what has been learned. This could be described as both ‘training to fail’ enhanced by a ‘failure to train’ in relation to the environmental risks, (meeting the standards while reducing the time taken to train).
With this said, are there other factors that are impacting operational response culture and especially the command element of decision making.
With the potential of significant cost savings associated with cross-sector applications of technology, the effectiveness of equipment may be another area of focus. Equipment in organisations requires significant investment in design, procurement and time to support delivery into operations with all the ongoing training demands. Equipment has, over time, become more specific to one task to ensure its effectiveness at delivering the required results for the costs of the equipment and in some cases to reduce the litigation implications for service users.
Organisational procedures support this approach to ensure that the equipment is utilised as part of a safe system of work and organisations, contractual arrangements relating to ensuring that supplier support for their equipment is maintained. As a result, the ability to improvise solutions has been culturally discouraged due to the numerous implications of using equipment outside of its intended specification.
Further outside of this system of procedure, procurement and training the continuing movement of staff and changing levels of experience within organisations develops areas of strength and weakness relating to commanders’ understanding of the requirements of their roles, as well as the potential applications of specialist equipment.
This may remain hidden as services operate in a ‘business as usual’ format, forming the organisational and staff perception that procedures, equipment and training are appropriate for the risks faced. Of course, in the main they are perfectly adequate, but the challenge occurs when the incidents happen that require commanders, staff and equipment to work outside of these parameters and in some cases in areas where they may not be designed for or be able to achieve the required outcome. For example, breathing apparatus used for long durations in vertical fire spread scenarios and/or use of such breathing apparatus with gas-tight suits and the disconnect between operational equipment functionality and supporting the physiological impacts of working in this manner.
These, along with other issues of human behaviour all work and exist within their own cycles of time, capability and organisational culture. They are being used to mitigate the effects on past community risk profiles that continue to dynamically change as a result of commercial, social, political and other factors that are not within the emergency service managerial control. As a result, response profiles will be based upon historic process, procedure, equipment and risk profiles which in the main match the current and incrementally changing risk profile, but not always. The dilemma remains, are we training to fail and failing to train for a changing risk environment?
An example of this would be the current training processes, procedures and equipment used to meet the built-environment risk and the speed that the operational environment is changing. To take just one sector, changing building techniques, technologies, commercial investment, government policy and taxation requirements result in new building types, and new environmental risks that are not covered by traditional processes.
Development of higher high-rise buildings which are significant investments and, through modern construction techniques, are becoming faster to deliver to market, have created advantages for developers, local government and town planners. They may well enhance taxation intake and are meeting the need to provide housing as part of a growing social requirement. They may also be encouraged as a result of economic or housing policy at a national or local level.
Response and rescue systems, including training, equipment and procedures are, in the main, set against a low-rise environment and or a specific incident location within the high-rise environment. And, as above, this represents the ‘bread and butter’ risk profile but not the outliers.
These kinds of challenges face services that now operate in a dynamic, efficiency-focused and media-driven working environment. Furthermore, actions on the ground are likely to be evaluated in real-time, with pressure by non-expert evaluators (as well as those with relevant expertise of course), and this has an enormous potential impact on current commanders, as well as those looking to take on a command role in the future.
Responding to a location where all the legislative, commercial and social safeguards have coincided in a failure of the safe living environment – be this a small domestic fire, medical or policing incident or a dynamic major incident involving immediate and significant response – requires an understanding that responders are attending the scene to bring control and safety back to a dangerous and chaotic working environment.
Their procedures, training, equipment and other resources in all likelihood will not fit with some aspects of the incident they are faced with. Additionally their knowledge, experience, cultural and organisational approach to using judgment, (which could be described as operational discretion), to address what they are faced with will all play significant roles in determining how quickly they understand the scale of what they appear to be facing at that time.
Forming a common operating picture to plan a safe and appropriate response to the emergency, in an environment of overwhelming information, sensory and social pressure and simultaneously determining the best way forward for staff who will, in some cases, have to take risks beyond the known procedures and their own understanding is an immense challenge. Furthermore, it is a challenge that is practically impossible to understand for those watching from outside of a commander’s role.
Understanding where emergency responders are in this cycle of readiness, with the challenges they all face relating to meeting the expectations of the public and others is an ongoing issue that post-event reviews should take more account of.
Reviews can have significant cultural impact on organisations, hence their responsibility to develop understanding and inform the future of responders’ roles is a significant one. Training commanders to feel empowered to meet the challenges of implementing concepts such as “Operational discretion” is a significant difficulty given the working environment. Commanders who can “strike the balance” between risk and expected effect to be achieved, while understanding the need to discharge their statutory duty to support public safety and keep responders safe in dynamic high-risk working environments have significant and consistently changing pressures upon them.
Understanding the impacts of training effectiveness on command actions is something that organisations take seriously. However being fully prepared for every situation is something that no organisation can achieve, especially when working in a changing, multi-faceted risk environment that organisations have limited control of.
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