In this blog curated by Brian Dillon, Dr Sara Waring says that academic institutions are a particularly fruitful area for training hubs to develop a link to, and association with, local academic institutions.
Major incidents, such as flooding, require decisions to be taken under severe time constraints, where risk and uncertainty are high (image: 123rf)
Although natural and manmade disasters, terrorist attacks and other major incidents are, thankfully, relatively rare occurrences, these high impact events pose significant threats to public safety, finances and organisational reputation. For example, the London bombings of July 7, 2005, resulted in 52 deaths and more than 720 people injured; financial costs to the economy estimated to be in excess of £2 billion.
While each event is unique, they share a number of common challenges including the need to make decisions under severe time constraints, where risk and uncertainty are high. Goals may be ill-defined, shifting or competing, and information is either scarce, unreliable, conflicting or there is too much of it to make sense of quickly. In response to these difficulties, emergency services are becoming increasingly involved in collaborations with academic institutions to identify an evidence base for ‘what works’ in improving emergency response, recovery and resilience.
For example, at the Critical and Major Incident Psychology research group (CAMI) at the University of Liverpool in the UK, we have been working alongside emergency services for over 20 years to develop tools and best practice that are fit for purpose. This work includes delivering on the national advanced counter terror interviewing course and developing a child sexual exploitation risk assessment tool that has been rolled out across UK police and 24 EU countries.
We have worked alongside agencies regionally, nationally and internationally to develop and evaluate classroom-based, table-top, simulated and large-scale live exercises that improve decision-making, communication, leadership and interoperability in areas ranging from urban search and rescue, to mass decontamination and marauding terrorist firearms attacks (MTFAs). These experiences have helped us to improve understanding of some of the key considerations to make when developing training, such as form, focus, frequency and feedback.
Training interventions take a variety of shapes and sizes (image: 123rf)
Form: What form should the training take?
As training interventions can come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, from short mental rehearsal tasks that can be completed in isolation through to large-scale live multi-agency training exercises, it is important to consider what form is appropriate for the aims of the training. For example, short but regular and targeted training interventions and monitoring are cheaper, better at increasing individual performance effectiveness and provide more sustainable change than complex lengthy and infrequent interventions. However, despite being more costly and time consuming to run, live training exercises are valuable for testing intra- and inter-agency interactions (eg how effectively information is communicated and made sense of, both within organisations across command levels and also between organisations, in order to assess risk and implement actions).
Focus: What is the focus of training in terms of both domain and specificity?
Before designing any form of training it is important to know what specific skills will be developed, why these skills are necessary and how they will be tested. For example, if the purpose of training is to test the ability of multiple agencies to develop a shared appreciation of risk, then it is essential to embed specific features and tasks within the training that will test this particular ability. Additionally, if people are required to learn new and complex skills, it is better to focus on each one in isolation first, providing the opportunity to practice and receive feedback, rather than immediately focusing on several skills at once.
Frequency: How often do we need to commit to training in order to improve performance?
This issue is also known as the ‘dosage effect’. Different skills may take longer to learn or require more opportunities to practice and receive feedback than others, depending on their level of complexity. Skills can also degrade over time once training has been completed, so it may be necessary to provide shorter top-up training sessions to prevent them from being lost. As this can be costly to implement, knowing the optimal amount of time after the original training event that skills will be maintained before a top-up is needed is important. Knowing how intensive both the original training and subsequent top-up sessions will need to be are also important considerations for balancing skill sustainability against cost (eg short reflections lasting minutes that can be done on a daily basis vs events lasting days or weeks).
Feedback: How will feedback operate? Who gives it and how structured must it be?
A consistent difficulty for some public service training can be a lack of measures to establish the effectiveness of training intervention. Knowing how to measure whether a particular skill has been acquired and what the most effective way for structuring feedback is are important issues for improving performance and for demonstrating the cost effectiveness of training.
Academic institutions are well qualified to assist in this regard, making this a particularly fruitful area for training hubs to develop a link to and association with local academic institutions. However, it is important for practitioners to maintain a close link to the institution to prevent the academic focus drifting from the core principles and requirements of end users and beneficiaries, as too strong an emphasis around the academic focus can lead to a drift away from practical requirements.
Overall, research shows each of these considerations to be key for measuring the effectiveness of training in terms of impact on performance, sustainability of skills and cost effectiveness.
Dr Sara Waring (C.Psychol, PGCert L&T, FHEA), University of Liverpool, is Co-Director of the MSc in Investigative and Forensic Psychology, and Research Co-ordinator of the Critical and Major Incident Psychology research group. Her research specialisms include decision-making, communication and leadership in dynamic environments, developing training and expertise, and programme evaluation. She has delivered a variety of training (eg Incident Command, MTFA, evaluation etc.), major incident debriefs, reports and evaluations (Bosley Mill explosion, JESIP, CBRN training etc) to emergency services nationally and internationally.