Hazmat training: The smart and the strong.

We talk about perseverance every time we face a struggle. It seems that it has become a daily topic of conversation during this trying time in our lives. With that being said, I pose the question, what does perseverance mean to you, and can you train perseverance?

Many explanations of perseverance point to overcoming an obstacle by any means necessary. We often say things like, put your head down and grind or push through that wall no matter what it takes. What if I told you that taking that approach is making your situation worse? What if I told you that there’s a way to persevere without adding the stresses that come with not fully understanding the obstacle?

When I was a young operator in special tactics, an instructor once told our group that he always saw two types of operators…the smart and the strong. He used it as a joke meaning smart people think, and strong people carry. As I thought about it, I processed it like this: The smart overthink everything they encountered and even spends time thinking about things that have not yet happened. The strong will react without regard for processing what has happened and often rely on force to make a way. In my opinion, both honorable and useful traits to have when facing a situation outside of the norm. As I worked my way through my military career, I began to see that the best operators had both characteristics, but I could not put my finger on how they developed smart and strong. It wasn’t until later in my career that I began to see how a person could develop both skills.

I was a bit more experienced, and while completing upgrade training, our unit was conducting a substantial exercise with multiple agencies. Our part was simple, provide rescue for any situation (real or scenario): anyplace, anytime, anywhere. We would fly in two HH-60s with our team split across both helicopters. I was the lead medic, and my duties included prioritize patients, oversee treatment, and lead the evacuation of anyone that came to our causality collection point (CCP). Beforehand I went through my medical kit meticulously and reviewed my treatment protocols too many times to count. As we loaded the aircraft, the only thought in my head was medical, medical, medical. As we lifted off, I was processing through potential medical injuries I could see during the exercise. After a few minutes in our holding pattern just outside the area of operation, my team leader leaned over to me and pointed to our other HH-60 and said, “what are you going to do if that helo falls out of the sky right now?” Engage deer in the headlights look. I had no clue because all I had to do was treat injuries. I thought for a minute without a response, and I think he noticed the look. He said, “if you don’t prepare for every situation, you’ll never be fully ready when it presents itself.” It hit me like a ton of bricks! Perseverance is built through preparation.

Sir Winston Churchill once said, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do an extraordinary thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” He is saying the same thing my team leader told me that day. If you are not ready for everything, you’ll have a hard time overcoming anything.

As I transitioned out of the military to the civilian sector, specifically the petrochemical industry, I began to look at how the industry prepares. Surprisingly I found many similarities on what I call the preparation cycle. It’s simply 3 main points to take away: procedures, training, critiques…repeat. And repeat…and repeat.

Procedures: Developing procedures help people understand processes. This takes shape in many different forms depending on the work to be performed. Some are step by step checkboxes, so nothing is missed like a lockout tag out list or a medical algorithm. Others are more general to allow flexibility, like an organization’s emergency response plan, which covers a multitude of possible scenarios at a bird’s eye level. Either way, these procedures are a way to prepare our workers for a potential issue they may see. These are the foundation of the preparation cycle, and they change as our regulations and processes change.

Training: Nothing takes the place of hands-on, real-world training. We can study all the procedures we want, but if we have never seen or touched the things we are asked to operate, we are only completing half the puzzle. Training should take the form of verbal, visual, and virtual. I say virtual to describe as close to the real thing as possible and not necessarily virtual reality, although that often fits into the process. Traditionally, when completing a job, it’s best to teach someone, then show someone, and finally, watch someone. That process triggers our senses of hearing, seeing, and touching. This combination helps us commit task to muscle memory so we can recall them in high-stress environments. But it doesn’t stop here; we must make training evolutions evolve as processes evolve and add the final piece of the puzzle…critiques.   

Critique: This is the most forgotten portion of the preparation cycle. In industry, we often don’t critique until something goes wrong, and there is an investigation as to why. The critique is something that people have a hard time hearing because it specifically points out places where individuals or groups may have failed and need improvement. While in the military, I have seen many different emotions during an after-action critique, but I have watched these men walk out of that debrief stronger, knowing they will never make that same mistake again. People often refer to this as a ‘teaching moment,’ and when used correctly can be one of the most powerful things an engaged leader can do to prepare their team for uncertain circumstances if it is delivered in the right package. Highlight the good while delivering recommendations for areas to improve on without being critical of failures. We do this in training because we do not want to do this for the first time after a real-world event, which is much more costly.         

In closing, I ask you to sit on this and let it sink in: perseverance can be taught. People who are strategic about their planning can overcome it easier than those who aren’t. Those individuals who are the most successful plan up and plan down. That means that they take into consideration they could fill roles above or below their level. When we are prepared, we can react controlled; when we react controlled, we can more effectively overcome obstacles. We see story after story of heroic individuals overcoming insurmountable odds. These feel-good stories are only half the truth. We often never see the preparation that takes place long before those people were ever placed in that situation. As humans, we have a natural fight or flight mechanism that triggers people to engage or flee. But how do we explain those scenarios where people engaged when they should have fled? The natural flight system many of us have can be altered if an individual is willing to prepare. Through in-depth learning of procedures, continuous real-world training, and excepting constructive criticism, we can be prepared to persevere in any situation we may encounter. These techniques can be taught to your team to help them overcome obstacles more effectively.         

Brett Crochet is an industrial emergency response coordinator at a major chemical facility in Louisiana. With over 15 years’ experience, Brett brings a long history of Emergency Response experience to the table. Some of Brett’s training certifications include Rope Rescue Technician, HAZWOPER Technician, Industrial Fire Brigade, National Registered EMT Basic, Army Advanced Tactical Practitioner (ATP), Pre-hospital Trauma Life Support (PHTLS), US Coast Guard Advanced Rescue Swimmer School, US Marine Corps Combat Dive School, US Air Force Combat Survival School, US Army Airborne and US Army Free-Fall Parachutist. Brett recently completed his Business Administration Master’s Degree and the BCSP CSP certification. Brett is an Iraq war veteran serving as a Special Operations Search and Rescue Specialist while deployed in 2008 & 2009.