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Within the Box exercise part I VRR-Oost 

Christo Motz describes the first of a three-part series of exercises designed to test volunteer firefighters in The Netherlands

A few months ago, the Commander of the VRR-Oost Firefighters cluster, Ilka Schot, asked me to prepare a set of three exercises with chief officer Hans Sevenstern and herself, writes Editorial Board Member Christo Motz.

These exercises were for the volunteer firefighting team and would focus on communication and co-operation. We started the exercises in the evening in the Hoge Bergsche Bos in Bergschenhoek.

The background setting was a complex disaster scenario. In this scenario the Netherlands is battered by a severe western storm for 48 hours, causing a number of the dikes and dunes in the Provinces of Zeeland and Holland to be breached, resulting in the breakdown of critical infrastructure. Local firefighting units must cope on their own and with each other.

In the evening, around 20 men search for a number of colleagues who are in distress. With no material support and direction from their superiors, they encounter the challenge of crossing a wide stream.

The absence of structure and the unexpected turn that events can take is a characteristic of large-scale disasters. Nothing is certain, not even how to tackle the difficulties and challenges that arise.

Variable (asymmetric) learning

As darkness falls, the troop's senses are greatly reduced. There is little visibility; most is done by feeling around in the dark and through verbal communication. This is not easy if you are used to operating with modern high-tech equipment and tools. Yet it is not altogether new for these firefighters, as they are used to entering burning houses where, owing to thick toxic smoke, there is no visibility and they need to feel their way around to locate for victims and the source of the heat.

The ability to apply these skills in other settings requires flexibility, as well as training in an asymmetric approach.


The German army command in WWII was aware that local commanders in the field often would have a better insight into the current situation and that they required the necessary leeway to be able to execute tactics in the field according to their own insight.

This decentralisation of executive command of (military) operations is currently called Mission Command.

By definition, lines of communication break down in times of disaster and sometimes they remain down during the whole event. What should a team of firefighters do when it has no contact with headquarters or the control room? Who will take the lead? Who will make the decisions? What are the communication lines within the group?

In this drill the results are not known at the start. In essence it is about a different approach of training and education, whereby each individual becomes aware of his/her own responsibility for his/her own actions and takes into account the responsibility for the well-being of both colleagues and the group as a whole.

This starting point is fundamental, especially when you realise that we live in a time that is dealing with more complex problems than ever before and that on a global scale we are dealing with drastic changes in an environmental, socio-economic and security context. Nothing is certain. Organisations, communities and people will need to become increasingly self-reliant as well as be able to rely on each other.

Patient Support

Once the teams managed the crossing they encountered three of their colleagues who had sustained severe injuries.

Almost purely by the sense of touch, they had to check the victim's vital functions, dress the wounds and prepare the patient for transport using minimal resources, ie crafting a stretcher from wooden poles and canvas.

As a precautionary measure, the victims were replaced by dummies weighing over 50kg, which were then transported across the rough terrain to the gathering point for the wounded.


Using the tried and tested After Action Review, the individual and collective actions of the troops were observed without judging their actions. This is about mapping the current state of co-operation, physical and mental resilience, communicative and technical skills in order to be able to provide cohesive direction for improvement.

The second exercise is called 'Out of the Box'. Using the same background scenario the crew were again confronted with new and unexpected challenges. The results will be described in a future blog.

Christo Motz, an expert in Wilderness First Aid and Survival, is a Member of CRJ's Editorial Advisory Panel - click here for his website 

Christo Motz, 11/11/2013
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