An immersion excursion

In early 1994, Oklahoma City had never experienced a major disaster, save a few tornadoes, and officials had no real reason to expect one. Still, city leaders decided to travel to the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md., for an intense week of class instruction, team building and participation in a simulated exercise that provided a real sense of the pace, pressure, lack of information, misinformation, broken equipment and other mishaps that can thwart an effective plan.

A year later, city officials would cite that training as critical to their well-

orchestrated response to the terrorist bombing that killed 168 people and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal

Building.

"Most government officials, even those in large urban areas, have never had the experience of a major incident that literally overwhelms their jurisdiction," said R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Preparedness Division and head of the U.S. Fire Administration, which oversees the school. "This type of training gives them a real sense of what that will feel like, what issues they'll face and the myriad types of difficult decisions they'll have to make."

Since it was established in the early 1980s, the training center has provided expert instruction and a unique networking opportunity for more than 16,000 emergency workers and government leaders each year through its two schools: the Emergency Management Institute and the National Fire Academy.

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, the school had modified its coursework, state-of-the-art simulators and mock Emergency Operations Center to include a terrorism exercise, but no matter what the scenario involves, the training provides an invaluable experience. The center's most unique attribute, say those who have attended, is its willingness to train an entire emergency management team at once.

"Disconnected from pagers and phones and meetings and other distractions, people can work together in an environment where they can truly gain an understanding of what will happen during emergencies," said Tom Fitzpatrick, former deputy commissioner for administration at the New York Fire Department. "It also gives them the freedom to sort of work out bugs and ask questions that they normally couldn't or wouldn't do in a regular environment. That's extremely beneficial."

They'll also gain empathy for their teammates' real-life positions. During the exercises, officials are typically asked to switch roles, with the mayor taking over police chief duties and the city manager making decisions normally reserved for the public health officer.

"It's all about building relationships," Paulison said. "And you want those relationships, that understanding in place prior to an incident happening. That's just critical to effectively responding to these types of events."

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