How to Effectively Train Leaders for Large-Scale Incidents

Image of an Emergency Scene at a road intersection

By Tod Langley, Crisis Response Leader Training

There is a growing awareness by leaders within our communities. Traditional training methods are not sufficient to support leadership development despite heroic, if not Herculean, efforts of countless first responders to save lives.

There is no doubt that active shooter incidents are on the rise. Beyond the continuous media headlines of violent incidents, statistics from the US government absolutely confirm that active shooter incidents are climbing, year-over-year. 

Yet in a 2022 poll conducted by Police1, only 22% of the police agencies said they conducted interagency mass-casualty incident response training in the past year. And for those agencies that do train, is it effective training? Probably not.

Current training strategies are failing to prepare our leaders, whether they are first responders or non-responders such as those at businesses, schools, and houses of worship.

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We need training that emphasizes the critical nature of problem-solving skills required to handle a major incident. This is particularly true considering the multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency dynamics at work during a mass-casualty event, like an active shooter or hazardous materials events.

However, there has been little measurable shift in leadership training strategies to address the worsening situation. This paradigm can be thought of as an adaptation flatline.

Additionally, the training management systems used by most organizations is inefficient, confusing and not tied to the critical tasks that leaders are expected to execute.

Old School Approaches

When most organizations train for an incident, they conduct individual and team-level drills while their leaders are resourcing and supervising the training event. The leaders are usually not performing their required incident-level tasks.

Most leadership training focuses on a standard certification approach. This has a steep learning curve (solid blue line in chart above) and a forgetting curve (dashed red line) that sharply drops off.

Studies over the past 150 years validate that any knowledge that needs to be retained requires time to learn and recall, when needed. In fact, most experts agree that 70% to 90% of the information typically introduced per day, within a course, will be forgotten in less than a month. 

Separately, a department may focus a lot of time and money on a high-end training exercise. Many city leaders lament this expenditure of funds and time, when most of the training devolves into a series of team-level training lanes rather than a cohesive culmination event that validates or helps improve planning for a major incident.

When these traditional training methods are relied upon, leaders often miss out on significant training lessons learned, become frustrated with their learning curve and waste significant time and money. They are also much less prepared to prevent the negative impacts on a community that occur from a major incident.

New Approach Needed

Several factors must be considered to flatten the forgetting curve and increase knowledge retention. These factors include full-spectrum problem-solving, visual and auditory stimulation, active and performance-based learning, multi-disciplinary approaches, increasing complexity of scenarios, and training repetition on the skills to be proficient upon. Those are extremely difficult to do in a traditional certification program. 

Other solutions focus on online content (extremely boring webinars) that do not address the leadership friction points, stressors of real-world cases or the low rate of knowledge retention.

High-end consultants offer the best quality within a realistic training environment. The problem is that no one can afford to do it with enough frequency to make an impact. If communities conduct such training events, there is a high likelihood that leaders will being prepared to take full advantage of this opportunity.

Hands-on experience is the best training you can get .But it is obvious that there are too many demands on our personnel, too many scheduling conflicts and too much cost associated with that approach to make it a viable solution all the time.

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New technology, particularly within modeling and simulations, will help in this regard. We need affordable, yet engaging and challenging training oriented on leadership development that can be used frequently at the organizational level to seriously increase the proficiency of our leaders, both in the responder community, as well as, within our businesses, schools and houses of worship.

Virtual reality solutions are a focus of numerous government requirements. VR is great, but they typically only focus on individual or team skills, and not on leadership training. Tabletops are more applicable to leadership professional development and complex problem-solving skills.

What is needed is a hybrid approach that automates the map-focused, turn-based mechanics of tabletops while providing statistical relevance for the participants, and still makes the learning experience engaging. This type of training platform would help reinforce the basics of doctrine and policies while also providing enough variation in outcomes to force participants to discuss adaptations to their plans.

Combine this simulation training with a learning management system and you have a leader tool that augments standard certification courses and helps hone leadership skills prior to a major training exercise, or a real-world incident.

There’s no reason leaders shouldn’t have the tools at their location, available to use whenever they want, to build upon their initial training and certifications. There’s also no reason emerging tech solutions can’t support the full gambit of training from individual, to team, to staff and leader skills.

Imagine a solution that allows anyone within an organization — from a squad truck leader, to a strike team leader or tactical commander, to the incident and unified commanders — to train alongside a vice principal, school board member or business security director whenever they want, as many times as they want.

CRLT already offers this solution for active shooter events. CRLT is also pioneering hybrid AI for decision-making for hazmat and other incident management training.

As long as we can inject the data into our program, we can replicate numerous types of incidents: workplace violence, civil unrest, major fires, natural disasters, and even hazardous material incidents. It’s extremely difficult to train with real hazards like toxic chemicals or radiological isotopes. These are ideal scenarios for simulations and it’s another exciting project that we are focusing our attention on.

It’s about using technology to its full advantage for numerous scenarios through an engaging simulation that allows leaders the ability to train as many times as possible and help retain information — and save innocent lives.

About the Author

Tod Langley is the chief executive officer for Crisis Response Leader Training, Inc. He has served in numerous leadership roles over the past 30 years, including time in the US Army Infantry, Special Operations Forces, and as a senior advisor to the US Army on counter-insurgency operations and sensitive intelligence activities. He is a consultant on security and incident management-related concerns for federal, state and local agencies, as well as for schools, businesses and major corporations.

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