Homeland Security Programs Teach Fundamental Lessons

Sept. 18, 2003
The Office of Domestic Preparedness' training program teaches responders about more than terrorism.

by Alan S. Brown

Even before 9/11, the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) funded a broad range of training and exercises to help states respond to domestic terrorism and especially weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Rolled into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last January from the Department of Justice, its emphasis on WMD continues.

Yet ODP classes and exercises also provide many of the leadership skills responders need to manage any significant event, from a spill or industrial explosion to a wildfire or tornado. In addition to WMD-specific knowledge, higher level ODP classes require responders to know the incident command system and follow unified command procedures.

More importantly, though, ODP funds large-scale exercises that bring together a wide range of federal, state, and local responder groups, often for the first time. These exercises give key players a chance to take the measure of one another, develop working relationships, and iron out chain-of-command and communications issues that can vex large undertakings.

Think Locally

In addition to training and exercises, ODP provides funds to buy emergency equipment. It often integrates new equipment training into drills and exercises. It also administers the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Training Program, which provides additional antiterrorism funds for the nation's 120 largest cities.

ODP does not deliver services directly. Instead, it works through the states. Each state government develops its own homeland security plan, allocates funds, and determines which communities will train and participate in exercises.

"There are no restrictions or directions," says DHS spokesperson Rachael Sunbarger. "We don't tell them how to train. Every city and town is unique."


ODP delivers training to a very broad swath of the responder community. In addition to police, fire, and EMS, it includes municipal emergency managers, government administrators, hazmat teams, health care and public health professionals, public safety commissions, and public works departments.

The curriculum itself deals with 152 critical tasks identified by a 1999 survey that would prove important in a terrorist/WMD emergency, says lead ODP training program analyst Darrell Darnell.

This starts with an eight to 16-hour basic concepts course in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapon awareness. It is delivered to state and local jurisdictions, and in train-the-trainer classes.

Some of the material is very basic. "If you're in law enforcement, your job is to secure the perimeter," says Darnell. "So how far back should you stand. If you see people lying on the floor of a building, don't go rushing in. Know the signs and symptoms of WMD."


The next set of courses teaches performance and operations. To take them, responders must complete the awareness classes, know the incident command system, and be able to implement a unified command. (While ODP may not tell states how to structure training, it does set some minimum guidelines.)

These task-oriented classes focus on work within the WMD warm and hot zones. Subject matter ranges from sampling and evidence collection to mitigation and victim extrication and triage. There are also classes in handling civil disturbances that might occur after an incident.

Each year, about 10,000 responders will undergo live agent training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Ala. They will train for two days, then suit up in Level A personal protective ensembles and enter a crowded gymnasium filled with a live agent.

In the gym, they will sample and determine the nature of the live agent. They will gather evidence. And they will remove, diagnose, and decontaminate child- to adult-sized mannequins.

If it sounds dangerous, it is. "It's supposed to be scary," says Darnell. "But going through it breeds confidence because they come out knowing they have the skills necessary to do it, the know-how to respond."


The final level of courses teaches responder leadership to plan and manage WMD events. Again, the incident command system is taught as the model for operations during a major event.

At all three course levels, ODP teaches prevention and deterrence. While some topics include how to gather and evaluate intelligence, many discussions wander into such constitutional issues as racial profiling.

An initial problem confronting ODP was how to rapidly roll out its classes to hundreds of thousands of responders after 9/11. It adopted a practice called blended learning. This combines conventional classroom instruction, videos, and exercises with such new media as Web and computer-based courses. Even the 18-month DHS masters program in homeland security is primarily delivered over the Internet.


ODP believes experience – exercises – is a practical way to put coursework into action, and to iron out chain-of-command issues that don't come up in class. Its doctrine calls for regular exercises based on credible, realistic threats. Each exercise involves different community organizations as well as federal agencies, giving groups whose responsibilities do not ordinarily overlap a chance to work with one another.

ODP exercises are based on a hierarchy, starting with seminars and workshops and working up to full-scale exercises involving teams from many different agencies and jurisdictions.

Where seminars introduce WMD exercise planning, workshops are where participants determine exercise objectives, scenarios, and evaluation standards. They are usually graded through participant feedback.

Most senior staff are already familiar with tabletop exercises; ODP's are different because they involve much larger tables with many more participants. A basic exercise involves responding to a well-described scenario. In advanced exercises, the scenario changes and evolves over time.

Games are another form of tabletop simulation. They usually involve competing multijurisdictional teams. Because they allow participants to explore different approaches to the same incident, they can help responders achieve consensus on which policies and processes to follow.

The simplest field exercise is the drill, which tests a single operation or function in a single agency. ODP also has a command-level equivalent, which it calls a functional exercise. It evaluates how well the command staff executes plans and procedures under crisis conditions through incident command and unified command. In addition to evaluating staff and interjurisdictional relationships, it helps measure the adequacy of resources.

Finally, there are full-scale exercises that involve mobilization of responders to contend with a simulated WMD attack. These complex, costly exercises are where the rubber hits the road. They are designed to challenge responders. And while the weapons and risk are only simulations, the scenario encompasses all the uncertainty of actual events.


Field exercises are analyzed on three levels: individual skill proficiency; team and department discipline and execution; and mission-level performance. The latter measures the ability of community and federal organizations to work with one another to meet the threat.

Following the exercise, ODP prepares an after action report, which addresses strengths and deficiencies. It is used to develop a corrective action plan that includes specific actions and timelines to remedy any issues.

Although the content of ODP's training and exercise programs concentrates on weapons of mass destruction, the methodology shares the same framework developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And while most responders will never encounter a WMD incident, they may find lessons learned in working with mutual aid and other partners invaluable in dealing with large-scale emergencies.

Sponsored Recommendations

Free Webinar: ISO 45001 – A Commitment to Occupational Health, Safety & Personal Wellness

May 30, 2024
Secure a safer and more productive workplace using proven Management Systems ISO 45001 and ISO 45003.

ISO 45003 – Psychological Health and Safety at Work

May 30, 2024
ISO 45003 offers a comprehensive framework to expand your existing occupational health and safety program, helping you mitigate psychosocial risks and promote overall employee...

DH Pace, national door and dock provider, reduces TRIR and claims with EHS solution

May 29, 2024
Find out how DH Pace moved from paper/email/excel to an EHS platform, changing their culture. They reduced TRIR from 4.8 to 1.46 and improved their ability to bid on and win contracts...

Case Study: Improve TRIR from 4+ to 1 with EHS Solution and Safety Training

May 29, 2024
Safety training and EHS solutions improve TRIR for Complete Mechanical Services, leading to increased business. Moving incidents, training, and other EHS procedures into the digital...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!