Behavioural skills in Emergency Management and Incident Response
Written by Flood Resilience Analyst | Evie Whatling

We work with a range of private and public sector organisations to train, exercise and evaluate emergency plans and incident response within a safe environment, helping to maintain and enhance levels of emergency preparedness and response. As part of our role as sole supplier to the Environment Agency’s Incident Management Training and Exercising (IMTE) Framework, we work to establish a baseline capability for all incident management roles and identify improvement plan options.

What are non-technical skills?

The human and behavioural skills adopted during incident response and emergency management are crucial elements of effective incident management. Such behavioural (or non-technical) skills are defined as the underlying human skills which support incident response and are an essential aspect of emergency management.

Core non-technical skills include situational awareness (how we build our understanding of the incident), decision-making, communications, leadership, teamwork, and finally emotional resilience. Yet these can easily be taken for granted and hence are often overlooked. Without such skills, there is the potential to adversely impact the outcome of any incident. While clear plans and procedures are fundamental to ensure we are prepared for a potential incident, a plan can never anticipate all potential outcomes or impacts of an incident. As a result, non-technical skills have been identified as the central theme for the training framework across all of the EA’s incident cells and roles.

The Incident Management Training and Exercising Framework has been designed to take participants through a capability-enhanced journey, whether they are new to an incident role or experienced. The programme has been split to provide equal opportunities between taught learning and self-development activities. The programme is also progressive in nature, allowing all individuals to gain an overview of the core non-technical skills, before utilising them in fictitious incident scenarios.

Why do they matter?

Post-incident investigations frequently identify communication as a key area for improvement, whether that be due to a failure in communication technology, or because of unclear messaging which causes misinterpretation. Non-technical skills are often overlooked as an area of improvement, leaving vulnerabilities in the resilience of individuals and the whole response team.

Training and exercising non-technical skills help to build the awareness and confidence of incident responders, strengthening the capability of responders to manage unexpected changes during an incident.

Specifically focusing on these skills helps responders to anticipate potential risks and build a shared understanding of the incident with others involved. This can also help reduce misinterpretation in communications; help individuals fully engage with the decision-making process and strengthen the relationship between the leader and team. Focusing on these skills can also help to increase the well-being and emotional resilience of personnel.

How do we improve these skills?

Non-technical skills are universal and independent of technical expertise. This allows for training to address any environment, any incident and in response to all risks. Non-technical skills are the focus of the nine-unit training programme delivered to over 400 EA Tactical and Strategic Incident Management staff for the past two years.

To train these skills, it is important to first describe and explore the process behind how non-technical skills operate in an incident, whilst identifying common barriers or challenges in the implementation of these skills. For example, responders might become complacent when responding to the same incident on a frequent basis. Acknowledging barriers means actions can be taken to identify and address them.

Secondly, developing an exercise where these skills can be explored in isolation, away from plans and processes, helps to focus on incident personnel and their development. As these skills are universal and not dependent on technical expertise, training and exercising scenarios can be developed to address any environment, incident, and response to all risks. A technique we have frequently used is to exercise responders through a fictional incident that they have no experience in. By exercising incident staff away from a familiar environment, previous experience, preconceptions, and biases that may distract them from the use and development of these skills are removed.

To help focus on these skills further, it is essential to have assessment frameworks and capability standards in place to ensure observations from facilitators are not influenced by their own biases, preferences, and misinterpretations. These frameworks also allow incident responders to reflect on their skills and to personally prioritise their own development.

Benefits of training and exercising

These benefits are seen from participants who attend the Environment Agency’s Incident Management Training Programme where we train these core non-technical skills to incident responders at a Tactical and Strategic level. Feedback from delegates has further highlighted the benefits of this training, with a recent attendee stating that the programme has:

“Really interesting content, supported by the use of real-life examples. Also, the fictitious exercise made me apply what I’d learnt but in an engaging way. Probably one of the best delivered and interactive courses I have attended for a while”.

Investing in non-technical skills can help reduce the impacts of an incident and can help to get ‘ahead of the curve’. Early deployment, early assessments and strong situational awareness all help in mitigating impacts, ensuring response actions are appropriate to the scale of the incident and risks, minimising resource pressures and setting recovery actions sooner.

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Want to know more?

For more information about developing behavioural skills in emergency management and incident response please contact Evie Whatling.

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