When you want people to learn new skills, they’re best learned by experience. By undergoing and evaluating an actual emergency, the student will learn what worked and what didn’t. The problem in this field of work is, you can’t have your students participate in actual emergencies. The general idea is to prevent them, not create emergencies. It’s not like learning how to drive a car. You can put an instructor and a student in a car and the instructor can teach the student how to drive it. First in a protected, sheltered environment, and as the student becomes more confident, they can practice between live traffic on the highway.
With practising for emergency response, that’s not the case. We can’t just go out there and create emergencies for the student to handle. So, now what… Revert back to classic classroom based teaching and “Death by PowerPoint”? I think not: that would defy the first point: that learning of skills goes best by experience, not by being told what to do.
What we need is scenario’s. Simulated emergencies in a safe and controlled environment. Starting at a predictable time and place, and preferably with limited long lasting effects: the only effect to last long is the improved competencies, not the damage associated with real emergencies.
Now, training by scenario’s is not new. On the contrary, many training institutions, big or small, have used some form of scenario based training for a long time. The traditional way of teaching by means of scenario’s however, is quite superficial, and focused on the outcome of the scenario. Let’s assume we want to teach a group of students to fight a fire. So, we create a fire in a safe and controlled environment, and have the students extinguish it. We may vary in the location of the fire and the fuel that’s burning (i.e. solid or liquid fuels etc). There you go: we have a whole range of scenario’s: An electrical fire in a laundry, a spill fire in an industrial environment, or a burning couch in a living room.
Fire extinguished means the scenario was a success, right? Now we’ve trained our students in fighting fires in different environments and with different fuels, and by doing so, we’ve used a variety of extinguishing agents. Students competent, everybody happy…
Not so fast…
The fact that the fire was extinguished does not mean that all of your students are actually competent. The extinguished fire could also have been result of a lucky shot, fuel running out or circumstances such as rain adding to your cooling water.
So… if we’re not looking for extinguished fires, what are we looking for then?
What we’re looking for is a judgement based on observable student behaviour that tells us if the student is generally competent, without having to observe all possible outcomes of all possibly conceivable incidents.
Let’s talk you through a different example, following the same principles. If we’re looking for a chairman of a crisis management team to effectively lead a crisis management meeting, we’re not looking for a successful meeting with good solutions for a company crisis (comparable to an extinguished fire, it could be the result of other factors) but we’re looking for competencies such as leadership, the ability to plan and prepare a meeting and distinguish different priorities and have them prioritised.
How did the chairman lead the meeting? Was he prepared? Did he inform his team members about the desired end result of the meeting? Did he make an effective threat analysis or a stake holder analysis? Did the fire fighter think about his own safety? Did he select the right extinguishing agent? Did the fire fighter check his surroundings before attacking the fire? The observable answers to these questions will give us enough insights to declare someone competent for all related emergencies, without having to witness them all.
So, the desired behaviour is first identified, and that will form the basis for our scenario. How now do we write a scenario around desired student behaviour?
We use a well-known tool for that – and we reverse-engineered it a bit, I must add. When you’re familiar with safety studies, you’ll probably know the Bow-Tie model, that is used to identify hazards (“Top events”), their probable causes and probable consequences. Then, preventive and mitigative barriers are placed to prevent hazards from turning into actual incidents and once so, limit the nasty consequences.
Now, in crisis management training, we want students to learn how to deal with crisis or emergencies. Actually, we’re looking for students to identify the possible consequences (make a threat analysis) and subsequently place mitigative barriers. So the student behaviour we’re looking for is translated into the Bow-Tie model as mitigative barriers and consequence identification. This is the first thing we enter into the model.
Just identifying the behaviour and putting it into an otherwise empty model is not enough to make the student perform this behavior. We need to tempt him/her to actually show this behaviour to us without an instructor telling him/her to do so (Traditional teaching: explain – demonstrate – perform). So, we create a scenario and fill the BowTie around the mitigative barriers: what incident do we need to create, to make certain consequences likely? Now we have the consequences that we want the student to prevent from happening. The right hand side of the BowTie is now complete.
Next, we need the student to believe the scenario is real. Therefore the scenario needs to be realistic and credible. We need to make it acceptable for the student that there is an emergency, so we need to convince the student how the emergency could have happened. To acquire this “Immersion” we need to describe the left hand side of the BowTie: the safety systems that the student expects to be in place must have failed or be absent for an emergency to happen. We need to describe how and why preventive barriers failed. That completes the scenario.
Once confronted with a credible scenario, we don’t have to ask the student to start acting on it – that will go automatically. Humans like to solve problems. Once presented with a credible, solvable problem, the student will start to act: make decisions, communicate, set priorities. Now, without realizing it, the student starts to show very natural behaviour – exactly what we were looking for.
All we need to do now is sit back and observe.