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'No box at all' Part III scenario training 

Following my previous blogs, this one looks at the third evening of training for 20 firefighters from the VRR/IJsselland cluster, writes Christo Motz. This training was held in the Lage Bergsche Bos in Bergschenhoek from 19:30 to 22:00hrs.

The training cycle built up gradually, whereby the team was confronted in different ways with unexpected developments and occurrences. The scenario was set in a flooded area where an order needs to be followed. However the command and control structure was down and the power was out. The mental and physical resilience of both the individual fire fighters as well as the team were heavily tested.

Globally, we have seen an increase in the frequency and scope of natural disasters these past years. The typhoon that hit the Philippines, causing thousands of deaths and affecting millions, is the most recent example.

Even in the Netherlands we have been experiencing an increase in unusual and stronger atmospheric and geological activities: the earthquake felt along the coastline of the North of Holland on October 22 and the tornado which caused a lot of damage on Sunday November 3 in the city of Wijk bij Duurstede. The size and scale of natural disasters as experienced in Asia are not yet common in the Netherlands. However, it is quite possible that a catastrophe of a similar size could manifest itself in the Low Countries, although most likely in a different form.

When developing a scenario, I assume there is total chaos and disorder. The aim is to learn to deal with this. Nothing is sure in this way of thinking, there are only two fundamental truths, namely that we are born, and that one day we will die. What we do with our lives and how we face life, why not take the unexpected as starting point for our actions? This is even more important for first responders as they, more than anyone, encounter situations with no previous warning.

This is exactly why my purpose in providing these scenario trainings for the team is to create disruption, to make a complete turnaround and to undermine their assumptions and expectations. To be able to deal with possibly quite shocking change is not easily done. Humans are creatures of habit preferring to keep things 'as they are', ie simple and manageable. Reality in the world of crisis preparedness and response is totally different from this simple and manageable worldview.

In this evening's scenario training, the firefighters are split into four groups and spread across the island. Each group received a partial map of the area and was ordered to hike to the meeting point. The fourth group also received an additional order; to look for the three other maps, which contained the locations and the assignments they needed to perform. Without these maps, the assignments could not be executed.

The assignments are:

  • Prevent a dike breach and pump out excess water;
  • Evacuate a victim; and
  • Find the equipment depot

The area is also home to a herd of Highland cows, but they keep to themselves.

Not long after starting, Groups 1 and 2 encounter a group of seven mildly hypothermic intellectually disabled people (third-year Medical students from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam) as well as their injured escorts (Ad Roskam, Lotus instructor and Freek Schulp, Sergeant in the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee). This group had become stranded in the area with their van and were trapped.

This unexpected encounter with such a large group needing attention caused a lot of confusion for the two firefighting groups and they did not manage to reach the meeting point. Groups 3 and 4 did arrive at the meeting point and, after a brief discussion, it was decided that one group should continue in a Northern direction to take stock of the imminent dike breach and see whether they could take preventative action.

On arrival, they found a small water tender. The other group set out to search for Group 1 and 2, while leaving one colleague behind at the meeting point.

At 21:30hrs precisely, the training session ended and all participants moved to assembly point II.

The confusion among the group members due to the darkness and absence of two-way radios was to be expected. It turned out to be an intense evening full of surprises. The absence of a formal command structure caused delays and confusion. Completing the actual assignments for the evening was not as important as experiencing the process of communication and co-operation. Both the troops and 'victims' expressed how valuable they found the experience, which uncovered just how difficult it is, both as an individual and as a group, to be able to communicate clearly and to learn to listen to each other while under extreme pressure.

At the same time it was clear that the group members were 'doers' and liked working together. They have the ability to be inventive and find creative solutions when tackling the many adversities that cross their path.

The cluster commander Ilka Schot and I will plan an evaluation evening shortly for the firefighters and their commanders in which we will evaluate and discuss the lessons learned from the three training sessions provided. I'm already looking forward to this.

Christo Motz is a Member of CRJ's Editorial Advisory Panel and an International Consultant on Survival and Resilience in the Netherlands. 

Christo Motz, 20/12/2013
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