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A win-win concept
Published:  02 June, 2017

A helicopter crash and multiple incidents related to its burning debris set the scene for a new-format multi-agency training exercise in Hampshire, UK, report Jose Sanchez de Muniain and PC Mike Batten.

In April, emergency responders in Hampshire, southwest England, trialled a 90-minute multi-agency training exercise. This marked a departure from the prolonged three-to-four-hour training exercises that have previously been the norm, and it is hoped that the format will have greater appeal to private industry as well as lead to more frequent training sessions.

It is 08.00 in the morning and the umpires and organisers of Exercise Winner are gathering at Vector Aerospace’s facilities in Gosport to assess the performance of four types of emergency responders during a complex, three-scenario training exercise.

Heading the exercise are Chas McGill MBE, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, and PC Mike Batten, Hampshire Police. Both are highly experienced in organising complex training exercises that involve multiple emergency response agencies working together with organisations that range from airports, refineries, and stately homes to shipping line operators. For today’s project, it is the aerospace industry.

One of the aims of the project is to test the principles of JESIP, the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme. This was set up in 2012 to attempt to address once and for all the difficulties surrounding inter-agency communications during large-scale incidents.

JESIP resulted in practical guidance to help improve multi-agency response as well as a standard approach to multi-agency working, including training and awareness products to enable organisations to train their staff. Its five principles and models can be applied to any type of multi-agency incident: co-locate; communicate; co-ordinate; jointly understand risk; and share situational awareness.

Whilst waiting for the briefing I meet one of the umpires, Colin Falconer, operations manager for BOC Gases, the largest industrial gas separation company in the country. Having served with Hampshire Fire and Rescue for 27 years as a retained firefighter, he will have the benefit of seeing the exercise from two perspectives.

‘I’m not interested so much in the operational side of it. I want to see that the services are working within the spirit of the JESIP framework and understand it, making sure that information is being passed on accurately and everyone understands what the plan is.’

At 08.30 PC Mike Batten leads the briefing outlining the scenario: an aircraft approaching Vector Aerospace’s airfield has crash-landed, with resulting debris striking two vehicles carrying four occupants. After screeching across the concrete apron, the main fuselage has come to a stop next to the entrance of a hangar, depositing additional burning debris and aviation fuel inside and injuring people in the hangar.

Three distinct scenarios will be taking place simultaneously: two vehicles with persons trapped on the roadway; an airframe with crew trapped; and a hangar with persons reported missing/injured.

The exercise umpires, armed with their evaluation sheets, are split between the three scenarios, plus wherever the command and control group decides to set up to coordinate the incident. Witnesses sport differently coloured tabards to signal their role: purple for umpires, orange for directing staff, blue for observers, and red for the site’s safety officer. The umpiring team is ready, and spirits are raised further when Batten tells them that bacon rolls are being provided by the host site after the first exercise, and again after the second.

The exercise will begin properly with a call from Vector Aerospace’s control room to the Hampshire FRS control room. The first on-scene deployment will be Vector’s own ARFF vehicle, closely followed by Hants FRS, police, and medical response in the form of the Hazardous Area Response Team (HART) from South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust.

HARTs were established in 2004 to provide medical teams to patients in hazardous environments, essentially bringing treatment closer to the patient in such situations and giving them a greater chance of survival. Due to the nature and requirements of their roles, team members are highly trained in a variety of response specialisms.

In the HART vehicle is team leader, Paul Haly, who explains that HARTs normally deploy in teams of six.‘Usually for an exercise such as this we would expect to have one full team participating with members from a second team acting as directing staff. Today we will be exercising with one team so we will be taking on a variety of roles throughout the exercise.’

At the incident ground preparations are in full swing, with smiling victims being made up with horrific-looking injuries and receiving instructions for their roles (‘your leg is trapped under a pedal’, ‘yes you can speak, say your chest is hurting’). Smoke from a portable smoke machine is gradually filling the hangar. The tray full of flammable liquid is being primed for ignition next to the Lynx helicopter's air frame.

During this build-up the umpires get to know each other better. ‘This is exactly what we need to be doing but we don’t do enough of it,’ says Tim Pettis, emergency planner for Southampton and Hampshire County Councils, and a seasoned umpire at this type of exercise. Pettis adds that in the event of a large-scale incident, for example one involving a release of toxic gases, he would be involved at a strategic level, advising on how to protect public health. ‘It’s all [good] learning. A lot of our challenges are around command and control and on-scene integration of agencies. Ultimately something [useful] will come out of this.’

For some, the focus isn’t just on the quality of communications between the various municipal responders, but the communications between municipal responders and the operators of the site where the incident occurs.

Getting businesses and industry involved in collaborative working is crucial, says Colin Falconer. 'At the end of the day, if you have an incident on your site, when you make that 999 call you need to have systems in place, as well as people who are familiar with your risks and understand what your principle controls are. Likewise, site operators and businesses have to be aware of what the responders’ expectations are. Having been in the service myself, there’s nothing worse than driving up to the front gate of a refinery or chemical plant at 3am and being told you can’t come in. Or the security guard waves in the general direction of the incident, and says: "it's just there mate". Just a minute, where’s the responsible person?'

It soon becomes obvious that for the people gathered together in Gosport this morning, the exercise is much more than a box-ticking exercise with a few more bells on than usual. It is a chance to prepare for the type of incident that they know will happen sooner or later.

'There were several high-profile incidents in refineries in the 60s and 70s, including pipe-work failure due to construction materials or corrosive materials passing through the pipe-work,' comments Falconer. 'A lot of work has been done to prevent that, but we are still boarding oil for processing hydrocarbons or distilling liquid oxygen 24 hours a day, and the physics and chemistry don’t change. You have to get those conditions completely right or you can have a major incident.

'I think because there hasn’t been a major incident for some time, memories have faded, and many people who were in the services who gained experience from those incidents have left. Most people haven’t seen that sort of thing.' Falconer's father, as it turns out, used to head up the industrial emergency response unit at Fawley Refinery.

Recognising a problem is one thing and doing something about it is another. While we wait for the exercise to begin, Falconer explains how his company is putting theory into practice.

'I left Hampshire Fire five years ago and in that time there has been a big turnover of people. I was very conscious that the fire responder stations to waterside industries may have no understanding or experience with the sites, so I arranged some visits from local stations. We demonstrated the properties of liquid nitrogen from the perspective of asphyxiation, and those of liquid oxygen from that of combustion. Although liquid oxygen is inflammable, it strongly supports combustion. We had a digestive biscuit soaked in liquid oxygen, surrounded by brave firefighters standing around, and put a flame to it. Ooomph, I’ve never seen so many brave firefighters take a step back so quickly – I have 1,500 tonnes of this agent in storage.'

With that thought resonating in my mind, Exercise Winner finally kicks off and Vector’s crash tender arrives, unloading a team of firefighters who quickly begin disgorging hose and tackling the flammable liquid fire by the helicopter.Hampshire’s two fire engines arrive a few minutes later, followed by the HART vehicle.

With activities taking part in three different places, it is difficult to keep track of what exactly is happening. After 40 minutes it’s time to ask exercise organiser Batten what the verdict is so far as regards inter-agency communications and incident handling.

'It could be better. I’ve just seen that fire, police and ambulance have finally come together by the Vector truck, but that’s now 40 minutes in and I would have expected that to have happened some time ago. I think there are many isolated pockets of work going on, but I don’t know whether anyone has actually drawn together all the various working elements to get an overall picture.'

The incident commanders are yet to congregate around the fire command vehicle, parked around 70m away from the incident. 'It is a complex scene and you need to make sense of it quite quickly,' adds Batten. 'Until the debriefing it will be difficult to know what exactly is happening.'

I wander down to the fire command vehicle and find nobody around but people soon begin to arrive. Outside the command vehicle I meet Paul Haly of HART again. He explains that the location of the incident is not large enough to warrant using an interoperability radio channel, which would enable him to communicate with the police and ambulance services by radio. Instead he’ll use his team’s radio channel.

'If it’s going to be a protracted incident then it makes sense to adopt an interoperability channel. But at the moment we are responding to this situation as if it were a more complicated and large-scale road traffic collision, adopting much the same principles that we would apply to that situation. And now we have a focal point which keeps all the commanders together.'

Chas McGill of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, a communications interoperability expert, has no issue with the non-radio decision. 'That’s fine. Interoperability doesn’t always have to be about radios, it’s about talking with each other and communicating face to face.'

Back on the fire ground, people’s attentions are turning towards the RTC, where the methods being used and the time being taken to extricate a victim – an hour and ten minutes and counting – is causing some light-hearted commentary. 'When they get the victim to hospital they won’t be x-rayed, they will be carbon-dated,' remarks one bystander.

Vector Aerospace site safety officer Brian Davis comes over and says that collaborations between industry and public emergency responders are important, reinforcing Falconer’s point. 'If we do have an incident we will be relying on these guys, so for us it makes sense that we all know each other. From their perspective, they get to use a real air frame, which they don’t have access to every day.'

Davis adds that Vector’s response capabilities constitute two fire trucks and a 4x4 control vehicle. 'Today has been a learning curve because the incident has involved a civil aircraft, which requires a slightly different response to one involving a military aircraft – not in terms of equipment and initial response, but in terms of the organisations that are called in to assist.'

Over an hour into Exercise Winner and it is beginning to dawn on some people that some significant aspects have not been picked up by participants. The area where the aircraft has come down is potentially a crime scene, and the accident could be the result of terrorist attack even. Is evidence being preserved? Has the flight recorder been found? Has the Air Accidents Investigation Branch been contacted?

'Of course, if this had been a real incident the response would have been quite different,' explains Dan Tasker, group manager at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. An incident with an airframe would usually have involved three or four pumps alone. Two appliances would have attended each of the other two incidents, while four pumps would have been used for the burning hangar, totalling between 60 and 70 firefighters.

'For an incident like this we would probably also have an air ambulance landing with basics doctors on board too,' he says, adding that it is not often that an incident location has so much handy landing space.

As the teams retire to their well deserved bacon rolls and coffee, the pre-exercise tensions are gone. There are smiles all round and a new sense of camaraderie. When the next incident happens, the crews may not be smiling but they will at least know each other a little better.

High-intensity training

Smaller-scale, more frequent and intensive exercises supported by industrial partners may be the practical solution for multi-agency exercises in the future, writes PC Mike Batten.

The decision to condense Exercise Winner into two 90-minute exercises followed a review of previous exercises, which typically revolved around a single three-to-four hour scenario.

The new smaller-scale exercise would allow a 30-minute period for the responders to be deployed into the exercise and a ‘golden hour’ to actually deal with the scenario.

I was particularly keen to address previous problems we had encountered with resourcing sufficient police officers for the exercise, as well as giving them a better pre-exercise build up. We were also determined that the training should follow JESIP doctrine and stress its five principles.

We went back to basics and combined a class-based training element, adopting a ‘crawl-walk-run’ approach to make up a two-part package.

‘Crawl-walk-run’ is a recognised method of learning, commonly used by the military, particularly the US and UK. The methodology perfectly suited our circumstances and provided us with a good means of imparting the JESIP joint doctrine in a practical, easily understood manner.

We took a group of officers with very little or no exposure to larger-scale incidents and imparted knowledge through classroom-based training and tabletop exercises. The training consisted of a presentation of JESIP with real-world examples, including videos and accounts of real incidents.

The tabletop exercise was based on a hazmat incident caused by a multi-vehicle collision on a motorway. The training was presented by myself and Hampshire Fire and Rescue officers Chas McGill and Dave Graham.

This served as the foundation for the live exercise, the ‘run’ phase, where officers put into practice what they had learned in the classroom. The ultimate aim was for officers to have a better understanding of what the JESIP Joint Doctrine means in practice, and how to use it successfully to achieve ‘joint working’ and successful incident resolution.

The training was delivered to the same two shifts of police officers that would subsequently attend each session of the exercise. The class-based training was delivered in January with the exercise in April.

During this time we also went to Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and South Central Ambulance Service’s Hazardous Area Response Team, who were keen to be involved. Once all partners were engaged, we formalised the exercise structure and resourcing with Vector Aerospace.

Vector provided a secure exercise area and the involvement of their on-site fire service as well as support facilities. The venue afforded us a safe learning environment out of public view, minimising any inconvenience to the public. The supply of an old Lynx airframe also greatly assisted with the realism.

There were elements of the on-site, internal response that Vector wanted to test, so we ensured these were incorporated from the outset, including a media management element.

During the build-up we invited and briefed representatives from each agency as well as private industry to act as umpires, using the JESIP Umpire Evaluation Log. This was a major part of the training, as we wanted to ensure that we captured all the learning from several different perspectives. Umpires were assigned to each of the three sectors within the exercise, as well as to wherever the command point would be established on the day. We also arranged for the exercise to be professionally filmed.

When the emergency services are called to industrial premises, it is important that the site operator understands how the responders will establish command and control, and the framework they will use to understand the incident and develop a response strategy. This has to involve the site operator, so it’s important that they take part in the training process. This should be an important component of future emergency and local resilience planning.

On the day of the exercise, each scenario was set up with live casualties in two cars who would need to be extracted. There were also two live casualties in the airframe and a mix of live casualties and dummies in a hanger. For added realism, we employed a smoke generator and a propane-fuelled burn tray to simulate burning aviation fuel.

The umpires observed how well the various responders integrated their activity. Of particular interest was how well the various agencies and incident commanders employed and adhered to the JESIP principles. Personnel were deployed according to a timeline, both to simulate actual response times and to prevent mass arrival.

The exercise was repeated with HFRS crews arriving in reverse order and a different team of police officers. HFRS and HART had the benefit of reviewing and acting on lessons learned in the first exercise, whilst the police team was fresh.

Overall the two exercises were very successful. The 90-minute format was more intense and all responders were able to put their theory training and JESIP principles into practice. It was generally agreed that the second exercise ran more smoothly, almost certainly due to the experience gained in the first exercise.

Exercise Winner’s format directly addressed many of the hurdles associated with large-scale, protracted exercises as regards to the financial costs and logistic complexities for individual fire, police, and ambulance services.

Smaller scale, shorter, intensive exercises supported by – and in company with – industrial partners and stakeholders may provide a better solution to ensure training is relevant and frequent enough to enable a better learning experience for all concerned.

PC Mike Batten.