Practice makes perfect

Computer-based training helps first responders strengthen decision-making

Tech Success: IT solutions in action

Project: First-responder training

Agency: U.S. Army Research Institute, Indiana Army National Guard and local authorities

Partners: Aptima Inc. and L-3 Communications Inc.

Goal: Train National Guard officers to react quickly and make good decisions when responding to disasters and other emergencies.

Obstacles: The situations officers face are complex and involve many levels of first responders and other officials. That makes running live exercises difficult.

Solution: Develop computer-based training that focuses on decision-making skills that officers need.

Payoff: With the computer-based vignettes, officers can train repeatedly until the skills become second nature. Local first responders also can use the technology to enhance their skills.

Whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, first responders need to react and make decisions quickly. For the Indiana Army National Guard, getting the kind of training needed for those situations was not easy.

Then Col. Barry Richmond learned about the computer-based training that the Army is using for officers at Fort Knox, Ky. Think Like a Commander takes officers through decision-making exercises to prepare them for real-life experiences.

"Each scenario might be different, but the core concepts and ideas that you want to reinforce are resident in all the scenarios," said Richmond, installation commander at Camp Atterbury, a training and mobilization center. "And I thought, boy, it would be nice if we could come up with some similar scenarios based on homeland security and defense, so we could improve our interoperability with our civilian first-responder counterparts."

The National Guard worked with the U.S. Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences and Aptima Inc. of Woburn, Mass., to develop a similar application for guardsmen and other first responders. The result is the Red Cape: Crisis Action Planning and Execution multimedia training program.

Red Cape lets officers practice their crisis management skills on 15 realistic homeland security and national disaster scenarios, including earthquakes, dirty-bomb attacks, prison and sports riots and snowstorms.

The technology builds on the Army's work in deliberate practice to hone cognitive skills, relying on that long-used practice of repeating the exercise of a skill until it becomes second nature.

"We understand, in physical skills, the idea of overlearning something so it becomes automatic behavior," said Michael Paley, vice president of government programs for Aptima. "You do that through deliberate practice. You go to the rifle range over and over again to master that skill, and then you can apply it in times of stress."

Nine keys of success

For the National Guard training using Red Cape, scenarios are portrayed primarily through still photographs with voiceovers, although video clips also could be used.

The multimedia training is developed in Adobe Flash, with photos, video and other media integrated via the Flash Player interface. The Flash files are dropped into a shell that contains the supporting materials for the training scenario, such as an introduction and background information. The module guides students through the process, acting as the instructor.

MPRI, an L-3 Communications company, helped develop some of the training modules.

"One of the key things we developed is this idea of what to train for," Paley said. "We defined nine key skills within crisis management, such as using all available assets and thinking in shades of gray, not black and white."

The actual training scenarios that hone those nine skills were then developed.
Producing events that reproduced the interagency complexity of the National Guard's work was a challenge.

"When you look at an event, you need to view it through multiple lenses," Paley said. "You need to see it through the eyes of the Guard, through the eyes of the local police, the state police the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] guys and so on."

In one scenario, for example, there is an industrial plant explosion in Gary, Ind. The exercise starts with a map to locate the event site. Then a voiceover gives the time elapsed and the extent of the damage, followed by photos of an actual plant explosion. Details follow on what's happening at local hospitals, how nearby schools are being handled and where the media is.

In the scenario, it turns out that guardsmen are preparing for a weekend drill, so they're already on alert when the incident happens. That fact ends up being crucial when trainees are evaluated on using all available assets.

"The idea behind these adaptive leader training modules is to take some of those core concepts that you always need to consider and have them repeated enough," Richmond said. "Because you have exercised those concepts a number of times, they become intuitive."

Something for everyone

The suite of computer-based exercises was developed with stakeholder-specific feedback, so that non-military first responders, coordinating agencies and supporting agencies as well as the National Guard can use them, Richmond said.

In another scenario, a tanker spill occurs, but it is unclear at first if an explosion caused it, and if so, what caused the explosion. Clues then can arise that point toward a terrorist attack.

"If that's the case, then the responses, the decision-making responses, and the decision-making processes all have to shift," Richmond said.

Each vignette has a story line and was developed with assistance from the Army Research Institute. The National Guard provided homeland security subject matter experts.

A small, instructor-led group or individuals alone can use the vignettes. With small groups, a facilitator helps direct the discussion and response plan development.

"The idea is to create a very short, three-to-five minute, immersion experience in a situation that's developing," Richmond said. Those taking the training "don't know what really is going to happen at the end," he said.

"You come into a situation that's developing, you get all of this information, and then, depending on what role you might play, you start developing your response," he said.

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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