Ready Commander One

Ready Commander One

Developing effective professional command and leadership within an emergency response organisation
is a challenge that must be wholeheartedly embraced, not just by the prospective candidate, but also by the organisation for which they will serve writes Ashley Price, Vice President, Fire Science Academy, KSA. 

It takes time for professional standards to become the backbone of an emergency response organisation and it takes time to nurture its management and leadership. Time is not always on our side and in particular when the pace of change and expansion in the Middle East region is so rapid. Ready or not, there will be a leadership expertise shortfall that will need to be overcome, like it or not, the need for investment in leadership expertise development is a reality. Virtual reality training as an adjunct to traditional certification training, provides access to an almost infinite number of emergency response scenarios which could take several lifetimes to amass or cost a fortune to attempt through drills. 

Face reality

The Middle East region is youthful in many respects, Nations are relatively young, the unprecedented growth in infrastructure is abundant and the population has dramatically increased with what many statisticians describe as “The Youth Bulge”.  The regional population is expected to increase to over 53 million by the year 2020 with potentially more than 65% being under the age of 25. It is no surprise therefore, that the region is deliberately making efforts to shift away from being economically dependent on oil (an industry with only a finite number of jobs), and through a multitude of regional vision initiatives set out on a course to drive private sector growth, education and employment opportunities. 

The demand for diversified economic growth has sparked a multitude of public infrastructure, transport, industrial, technology, retail, commercial, tourism, healthcare and education construction or development projects. 

With progress and ultimate completion of these projects, comes not only a shift in risk profile from an emergency preparedness standpoint, but also a vacuum for response capabilities, qualified professional responders and the
personnel that will manage and lead them. Change is not coming, it is already here.

The leadership gap

The traditional reliance on employing expatriates within the Middle East for emergency response leadership is inevitably going to reduce over a period of time and become more transitional as regional vision initiatives will drive for more nationalisation of these roles. However, with a younger labor market and a shortage of qualified emergency response leadership talent available throughout the region, the need for rapid development of personnel will become a priority. 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) professional qualifications standards are specifically structured to state the minimum job performance requirements (JPR’s) for a career or volunteer firefighter within an emergency response organisation. These professional standards range throughout all operational levels of an emergency response organisation from Hazardous Materials Awareness all the way to Fire Officer IV (Chief Fire Officer).

There are also NFPA professional qualifications for specialised roles or responses (for example NFPA 1006: Rope Rescue, Confined Space Rescue, Swiftwater Rescue etc. or NFPA 1002 Driver Operator).  The standards that would in theory constitute a professional career path are essentially as follows:

The above certification levels are sequential, meaning that successful completion of a level of certification must be achieved before the next level may be taken. Recruit level training which constitutes the longest period of training typically sees graduation at the NFPA 1001 Firefighter II level, at which point a firefighter is deployed full time or potentially becomes operational as a qualified volunteer, subject to department or organisation policy.

Dependent on candidate suitability, if they are not specialising for a particular role, then the focus of the professional standards become that of management and leadership and intuitively as the titles suggest, the levels of responsibility increase. In the case of the “Officer” qualifications, the JPR’s equip candidates with the leadership and management skills needed within an operational environment. Emergency response operations are inherently dependent on the effective capabilities and the direction of teamwork.


Bridging the gap

Developing emergency response leadership requires a commitment to the NFPA standards of training and certification. There are no shortcuts. Regional vision initiatives are demanding international educational standards and without the base foundation of emergency response professional qualifications, individuals will never be able to truly develop either as responders or as potential leaders in this field. The gap can only be bridged by training and certifying candidates.

The experience rift

Experience counts and in emergency response operations, it is through experience that we really learn to apply the knowledge (cognitive) and skills (psychomotor) JPR’s learnt through certification training. Traditionally professional development has been and continues to be through on the job training, learning from those more experienced, from exchanges or from structured further training. 

If an individual or an organisation is not exposed to a sufficient diversity of emergency response situations, there can potentially be a resultant experience rift. The rift can manifest itself in many ways, be it in preparedness, pre-planning, equipment, personnel capabilities or incident management expertise (to name a few examples).

Even with an experienced officer in command during an incident, if the response team and operational level leadership has insufficient experience exposure, this can impact response efforts or even become a major problem.

Crossing the rift

Virtual Reality simulation provides us with an extremely viable method of exposing trainees to situations where they can visualise scenarios, consider options, make decisions and see at first hand what the results may be. 

Utilising a 180° panoramic three dimensional interactive environment with sound, a trainee is subjected to a highly immersive experience where emergency response scenarios (be they hazardous materials, explosion, fire, rescue or security threat related), can be created. The environments themselves are also diverse, including residential, commercial or industrial buildings, industrial process facilities, airports, rail, and marine port infrastructure in cityscape, urban or rural form locations. As with any real environment there are people, there is traffic and even changing weather conditions. The emergency response assets (emergency vehicles, manpower etc.) are deployable and controllable in real time. The most simple to highly complex expanded multi agency incidents can be modeled and simulated visually where decision responses can be coordinated in real time. The right decisions and course of action leading to situation improvement, stability or normal operating conditions or, the wrong decisions and courses of action could lead to further incident complications, damage, casualties or fatalities.

What this all creates for an individual is what we call an “Active Learning Environment” and in philosophical terms this would fall under the educational theory of “Constructivisim”, where trainees can reconcile formal instructional and existing knowledge and apply that through a medium that provides active experience feedback by displaying in real time the results of an interaction. 

From a vocational education standpoint this drives home some very powerful P’s: Perception, Participation, Pragmatism, Practice and Performance. ‘Perception’ is gained through virtual visualisation of a scenario, almost leaving nothing to the imagination. Participation is gained as it is the only method of interaction to engage in evaluating situations, applying learnt knowledge and making a decision. Pragmatism is gained as mistakes can be made and the results demonstrated graphically without causing real injury, fatalities or damage. Practice is gained as we can engage (repetitively if need be) in multiple types of scenarios with multiple variations of risk or incident profiles. Performance is gained as the whole active learning process allows an assemblage of experience in different scenarios in a learning environment scientifically proven to be highly effective.

Real time versus real life

Virtual reality is a cutting edge tool that can valuably augment leadership and incident management training. It cannot replace real life experience as it is ultimately a training environment. Real life drill experience is still important as drills reveal real life issues with personnel (capability gaps) and equipment (operability etc) that could occur at any time during a response. However, what it can do is prepare trainees with highly sharpened leadership and management skills applied in a safe real time environment. When totally immersed and engaged in such a training environment, the constructive stress, essentially takes over and one often forgets it is a training environment.

Combining NFPA certified professional qualifications certification with Virtual Reality training is a highly complementary fit for maximising the caliber of the regions future emergency response leadership.