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It CAN happen here: Training for large-scale incidents

How fire departments can coordinate training efforts with other agencies


In running a tabletop, it’s important for the participants understand that this is truly about learning and is not an evaluation of the ability to do their job.

Photo/Keith Padgett

Some people assume large-scale events won’t occur in their district. It always happens somewhere else, right, so why should we train for such low-frequency events?

And even some of the firefighters who do train on large-scale events often don’t train with a mindset that the events will actually occur. They instead just go through the motions, check off boxes and use phrasing like, “If that happens, we could just [fill in the blank]” or “We could try [fill in the blank],” not speaking in absolutes or confirming that the actions can be accomplished – all because they haven’t done the groundwork. Then when a large-scale incident does occur in their community, they could quickly discover that the action they thought might work does not, compromising firefighters’ efforts and delaying help for the community.

Does this sound like your fire department? If so, it’s time to start training on large-scale incident response to ensure that when an event strikes your community, you are ready to protect your citizens and keep firefighters safe.

Coordinating large-scale response efforts

A large response of any type requires a significant amount of coordination and responder discipline. Whether it’s a planned event like a concert or a sudden event like a tornado that has torn across an entire county, organizing public and private response is a skill that must be practiced – and that’s where training comes into play.

Training that integrates public and private response is uncommon and opens up participants to myriad unknowns, particularly related to how other agencies handle similar response efforts. Agency leaders (e.g., fire chief, training chief, lead instructors) must underscore to all training participants that it’s OK to not have all the information, and to never be embarrassed about this stage of the training process, as participants are discovering and learning new ways to address many situations in a controlled environment. Mistakes will be made and learning will occur, but that is part of building a strong response plan.

Local networking and relationship-building

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of local networking in your community. Building those strong, long-lasting relationships is just as important as any form of training. After all, it’s the relationships that form the foundation for effective training and coordinated response efforts.

If you’re meeting the local emergency management agency (EMA) director for the first time during a tornado response, then you are failing at your job and letting the public down. Do not let this happen. Be out front of large-scale incidents by meeting and becoming true cohorts within the city, county or district.

Begin with the support and direction of the county or city manager, as this demonstrates the significance of the training event. It’s important to include them in the planning meeting. And what better way to get to know others than to host a dinner? Not every meeting has to be in a boardroom. Break bread with your fellow agency leaders and city/county managers and start talking about plans. This helps to create that relaxed atmosphere so everyone can just talk and further expand their knowledge of the people with whom they will be working closely during an emergency. Have someone to serve as the group leader and assist in facilitating the entire dinner meeting.

Training across disciplines

Identify the many agencies within the community that would be involved in response efforts to a large-scale incident and what those agencies bring to the table. As we are all well aware, this may differ depending on the municipality and its makeup.

Individual roles of the many different organizations must be worked out beforehand and may even need to be written into an emergency operation plan to ensure clear direction during the initial chaos of a large event. The fire department has historically taken on several roles in large-scale incident response, but the nature of the response depends on the type of event.

For example, if there was a large wildland fire that destroyed thousands of acres and impacted a community by also destroying many residential homes, the fire department may take on the following roles: fire extinguishment, search and rescue, and incident management. If the event was a tornado, the fire department may take on only the role of search and rescue, with the EMA director establishing an area command with multiple incidents inside a county, while coordinating the entire event.

Other agencies like police, EMS, Public Works as well as private contractors will play a significant role in the training. So, as you prepare to organize the training, make sure you identify all parties and involve them early in the process.

Identifying responsibilities across agencies

As you start to train with other departments within your county or district, develop a list of who is responsible for what and why. You will most likely be surprised to learn that some department members believe they are the lead on certain jobs and that they assumed that other departments were responsible for other certain jobs as well.

This is all just fact-finding, not a show of power or authority. This must be a team effort, and everyone must come to an agreement on not only who is responsible but also the overall goals of the responsible party. For example, security is commonly handled by law enforcement. How that is accomplished is normally decided and implemented by the law enforcement agency. However, it should be communicated to the other departments working in the area – and this is where the issue comes into play. We operate every day in our response area, within our own department without concern, but when the event is larger and other agencies become involved, policies and normal operating procedures are not always known or communicated. So it is vital to go over the most common emergency responsibilities well in advance so the event runs as smoothly as possible.

Such training should also address non-emergency events, such a concert at the local amphitheater. An event like this with a major performer can draw many people to one area, impacting everything from vehicle traffic to increased emergency call volume outside the event itself.

An influx of several thousand people for an event brings many different problems that need to be addressed. Take time to build a strong incident action plan (IAP) to ensure all the items are covered. There are many examples of planned events to draw from that can easily be modified to fit your needs and that can serve as a checklist as well.

This is also an opportunity to connect with the event coordinator and include them in training, as they will have a wealth of knowledge of the entire event and, most importantly, experience from conducting similar events in other communities.

Learning by doing: Tabletop exercises

If you haven’t already initiated the actual large-scale event training, a good place to start is organizing a large-scale training tabletop exercise.

Many people simply don’t take tabletop exercises seriously. They will make excuses as to why they can’t perform some type of task or insist that they could handle the task with limited resources. For example, they might argue, “This isn’t real, because if it were, I would have deployed two attack lines and completed a search of both the first and second floors, as well as ladder the building,” when, in reality, during the scenario only one engine company is on scene, and there isn’t enough staffing to complete all the assigned task. They must think beyond the idea that saying it makes it happen. Further, a participant of a tornado scenario might state that they would complete a primary search of five houses with a single engine company, when, in reality, it would likely take three rescue companies hours to complete something this task, depending on the structural damage.

In running a tabletop, it’s important for the participants to understand that this is truly about learning and is not an evaluation of the ability to do their job. It’s an opportunity to fail, which is OK. It’s a process of trial and error to learn what will and won’t work – something you don’t want to be figuring out for the first time during the actual event. What better time to have the chance to correct a mistake, multiple times, and improve, as you have learned from your last error?

Have a facilitator – this could be the training instructor with the department or an outside company that specializes in this type of training – coordinate the entire tabletop, someone will not attempt to overwhelm the group but rather foster an environment of learning. We have all been at a tabletop that grew from a single-family residential room-and-contents fire to the entire city block burning within a few minutes. While it’s always good to train for how events might ramp up, it’s best to develop realistic scenarios that relate directly to your community.

Consider starting with a tornado touching down in a neighborhood and damaging several houses with multiple injuries. Have your 911 center provide a dispatcher to handle the radio traffic, bring in fire, EMS, police, Public Works, EMA, Red Cross, state agencies and anyone else whom you believe could respond to this type of event. Stop and have a “time out” every 10 minutes to just write down on a whiteboard what is happening and discuss.

Again, this is all about learning. Have the group offer suggestions, but don’t let this lead to hurting feelings or disparaging anyone. Always keep the learning process positive and productive.

Don’t be overwhelmed by large events

Large events do not need to be overwhelming, but they certainly will be if you fail to train for all the “what ifs.” Acknowledge and accept that such large-scale incidents can, in fact, happen in your community and you must be prepared, so take the time to train with your partner agencies and organizations.

Stay safe and train hard!

Editor’s Note: How does your department train for large-scale incidents? Share in the comments below or at

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.