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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

Computer Simulation for Incident Command Exercises

By Dennis McGrath, Research Associate, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; and Michael R. McCarthy, Chief of Police (Retired), Swanton Village, Vermont

omeland security is hometown security. Police executives have adopted this theme across the United States to stress the need for full community involvement in all-hazards emergency preparedness. The pressing question is how to achieve this level of involvement in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Since 2004, engineers at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College have been working under a homeland security grant to develop a system that delivers Web-based, real-time, real-life, customized National Incident Management System (NIMS)/Incident Command System (ICS)–compliant training scenarios.

Incident Command in the Age of NIMS

In 2004 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security established the NIMS and its associated ICS as the standard for all emergency response organizations. Emergency responders have been working toward NIMS compliance since then, with many successes along the way.

Widespread compliance and the use of the NIMS/ICS remain a work in progress. NIMS compliance is particularly challenging for small, rural districts that rely heavily on volunteer and part-time resources, where training budgets and time are limited. Furthermore, effective incident command requires greater awareness of the incident command structure. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

Incident command requires practice in procedures, communication, leadership, and the ability to develop situational awareness from sometimes ambiguous and incomplete information.1 Although many of these skills are used by law enforcement agencies on a daily basis, studies have shown that under the stress of disasters and other major incidents, even experienced professionals become less effective.2 Repeated rehearsal of incident command roles and responsibilities under simulated crisis conditions can mitigate the potential degradation of decision-making skills under stress.

Incident Command Exercises and Training

Exercises are an important part of training at every level of the law enforcement profession, and incident command exercises are particularly critical for disaster readiness. The NIMS requires any organization that could be called on to respond during an incident to “participate in realistic exercises including multidisciplinary and multi-jurisdictional events and private-sector and nongovernmental organization interaction—to improve integration and interoperability.”3 But what makes an incident command exercise “realistic”? Answering this question requires some honest reflection on the shortcomings of typical exercises.

Troubles with Exercises

Emergency response exercises range from simple discussion-based exercises about what would happen if a bus turned over in a small town to national events like the TOPOFF series of exercises. In an ideal world, regular, full-scale exercises would ensure that every emergency management organization was at maximum readiness, but the cost of planning, conducting, and reviewing exercises makes frequent full-scale exercises prohibitive. In fact, even full-scale exercises are often heavily scripted to guide the exercise to a desired outcome.4 Tabletop exercises, due to their lower cost, can be held more frequently than full-scale exercises, although they suffer from multiple shortcomings that limit the amount of “realism.”

In a typical tabletop exercise, participants discuss response to a predetermined scenario while a moderator controls the pace of the event. A skilled moderator can keep control of the exercise, but sidebar discussions often spin out of control and drag down the pace and the effectiveness of the exercise. Resource allocation decisions are often made with unrealistic response times and equipment and personnel availability. The positive and negative evaluations are often left in part to the imagination of the evaluators. After-action reporting depends on the recording ability of the scribe assigned to capture events and conversations during the exercise.

This does not, however, mean that tabletop exercises are without value or that those who run them are unprofessional. The real challenge is determining whether or not technology can overcome their limitations. Technology solutions should begin with a realistic assessment of where improvements can be made to enhance the real-world effectiveness of these exercises.

Computer Simulation and Emergency Response

Law enforcement agencies have increasingly been able to use computer simulations for situational training in such areas as motor vehicle operation and firearms proficiency. Many of these simulations evolved from military simulations, sometimes called “synthetic battlespaces.” Military training budgets, however, are in the millions of dollars, far exceeding the reach of most, if not all, emergency response organizations. In recent years, computer game technology has been leveraged to create serious simulations at low cost. The Thayer School has adapted this technology to fit into the NIMS/ICS environment and is developing prototypes of Web-based training scenarios that can be custom designed for any community.

Agencies seeking to incorporate incident command simulation into the toolbox of emergency responders will encounter the following challenges:

  • Cost: Commercial tools with high license costs are not viable for widespread use in the emergency response community.

  • Complexity: Tools with a steep learning curve will be rejected by users who do not have the available time to learn the intricacies of a complex system.

  • Availability: Tools developed for use by the U.S. Department of Defense often carry restrictions on use that make them unsuitable for use by most emergency response organizations.

Interactive Synthetic Environment for Exercise

In response to these challenges, the Interactive Synthetic Environment for Exercise (ISEE) was developed at Dartmouth College with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice. ISEE is a Web-based simulation designed to be an engine for incident command exercises. More specifically, ISEE was designed with the following goals:

  • Reinforce the roles of the NIMS/ICS

  • Provide a database of local resources (personnel, vehicles, equipment) with realistic response times

  • Promote the use of ICS forms for articulating strategies (such as an incident action plan)

  • Log events and communications for after-action review

ISEE has numerous benefits for those seeking to participate in incident response simulations.

Accessibility: ISEE is readily accessible by anyone with an Internet connection. This has the benefit of allowing exercise participants to engage in the same simulation from different locations if necessary. In other words, participating in the same simulated exercise, an incident commander could log on to the simulation from City Hall, while the operations section chief might log on from the local police station.

Flexibility: Every community is different, not only in terms of population and geography but also in terms of its emergency response capabilities and mutual aid resources. The threat profile for every community differs as well: a hurricane preparedness exercise may be entirely suitable for a jurisdiction on the Gulf Coast, but less so for a community in the Pacific Northwest, where a wildfire scenario would make more sense. ISEE has the flexibility to accommodate many different scenarios.

Roles and Responsibilities: The roles and responsibilities for incident command are defined by the NIMS/ICS. At the top of the chain of command is the incident commander role, which has more responsibility and functionality than any other role. In ISEE, as many or as few roles can be filled as available personnel allow, just as in a real situation. In other words, a user can log in as the logistics section chief or a safety officer or any other ICS position, and the simulation presents options, resources, and functions that are appropriate to that role.

Situational Awareness: During a real disaster, the incident command team builds situational awareness from a combination of sources, including firsthand observation and reports from the scene. In an ISEE exercise, these building blocks of situational awareness are replicated in the form of a master scenario event list, which contains essential scenario events in text, pictures, sound clips, or videos.

ISEE Exercise Preparation

Agencies participating in an ISEE exercise provide their personnel and equipment capacities and availability list to the facilitators in advance of the exercise. These data are entered into the database and will be the only personnel and equipment available for use during the exercise. Incident location, response distances, road conditions, and date-appropriate weather are also made part of the program. Before the ISEE exercise begins, participants are given an initial briefing, an orientation to the background of the event, and a login password to identify each participant.

Real-Life, Real-Time Exercise

As with almost every emergency response, an ISEE exercise begins with a dispatcher receiving information regarding the nature and the location of the incident. The dispatcher then must determine what resources should be sent from which “communities” to the “scene.” Since delays are a realistic part of disaster management, response time is an important part of the ISEE exercise dynamic. Simulated resources are not available for use by the incident command team until they “arrive” at the scene after a timed amount of travel equivalent to real-life travel time from their stations. Once assigned to and functioning at a scene, equipment and personnel are tracked by the ISEE system. Personnel become tired; fire equipment pumping 200 gallons of water per minute from a 1,500-gallon tank runs out of water in seven minutes and stops functioning unless replenished. All of this must be monitored and dealt with by the incident command team. Additional resources do not just show up, they must be requested; they, too, have to deal with the measured response and travel time before they can be put into service. Both radio communications and instant messaging on the ISEE system are recorded for after-action review. Incident command forms are an important part of the ICS system. Electronic versions of ICS forms ICS 201 through 218 are on the ISEE system.

Enosburg Exercise

Vermont, New York, and Canadian law enforcement authorities were shown a prototype of the Web-based training in 2006 at an international border intelligence conference held at the Swanton Village Police Department, a small rural agency in the northwest corner of Vermont, near the Canadian border. These intelligence-sharing meetings have been regularly organized by James Leene, the law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Vermont. Leene had earlier been apprised of the work being done at the Thayer School of Engineering and approached one of the authors (M.R.M.) to have the training system introduced to the border meeting participants. The advantages of the Web-based delivery system were immediately apparent. Cooperation among public safety agencies on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border has been strong in northern New England for many years, but it has been limited in its capabilities due primarily to differences in two-way radio and telephone systems. A tabletop cross-border training exercise held in 2005 identified this issue and stressed the real need to improve the coordination of responses across and around the international border.

On May 19, 2007, the Northwest Vermont Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) conducted a live exercise using the ISEE incident command simulation in Enosburg, Vermont. The scenario involved a simulated commercial plane crash on a nearby mountain, requiring a response from both U.S. and Canadian law enforcement, fire, rescue, and medical units. Robert White, a retired Vermont State Police major contracting with the LEPC for homeland security training, and Sean Coleman, the LEPC coordinator for the area, developed the scenario and obtained the response and resource lists of the participating agencies and fine-tuned the details with the Dartmouth team for several months prior to the exercise.

Fourteen computers were used in the simulation. For four hours, the incident commander from the Enosburg Fire Department and his staff used everything they had learned in NIMS/ICS training to establish the command post, the treatment area, and the staging area. They also assigned fire, rescue, and police units to their tasks; conducted simulated search and rescue; and transported 21 simulated casualties to local hospitals.

The Future

Concepts central to the NIMS vision, such as interoperable communications, a common operational picture, and a unified incident command, are organizational and technological challenges that will require considerable effort on the part of all emergency responders. The integration of simulation technology into the toolbox of emergency responders will take time as the technology evolves. This evolution can happen only with the close cooperation of both the developers and the users of this technology. Prototype exercises like the Enosburg plane crash give both technologists and emergency responders a better understanding of what is needed to reach the full capabilities of the NIMS vision. Michael Chertoff, secretary of the DHS, is “strongly committed to maintaining our funding and training and exercising across the entire spectrum of homeland security.”5 Incident command simulations such as the ISEE system can be a functional part of that commitment. ■


1See Gregory Bigley and Karlene Roberts, “The Incident Command System: High-Reliability Organizing for Complex and Volatile Task Environments,” Academy of Management Journal 44, no. 66 (December 2001): 1281–1299.
2See James E. Driskell and Eduardo Salas, “Group Decision Making under Stress,” Journal of Applied Psychology 76, no. 3 (June 1991): 473–478.
3U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Incident Management System, March 1, 2004, 37, (accessed September 13, 2008).
4Thomas Inglesby, Rita Grossman, and Tara O’Toole, “A Plague on Your City: Observations from TOPOFF,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 32 (2001): 436–445.
5Quoted in Lois Pilant Grossman, “The Future of Homeland Security: An Interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff,” The Police Chief 74, no. 2 (February 2007): 15.

Virtual Terrorism Response Academy Course

ISEE is not the only computer simulation training available to first responders. Offered by the Virtual Terrorism Response Academy (VTRA), Ops-Plus for WMD Hazmat is an interactive course for fire, emergency medical services, and law enforcement personnel offering 16 hours of practical, engaging training about chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) threats.

Ops-Plus features multiple video game–style simulations that put participants in tactical terrorism response scenarios. (The introductory level ensures that participants do not need previous video game experience.) The program also includes the Hazmat Learning Lab with extensive training at the operations level of the latest National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 472 standard on hazmat and weapons of mass destruction. Participants can demonstrate their vital knowledge of personal protective equipment, instruments, rescue, triage, casualty care, and risk management in real-world, life-and-death scenarios.

The VTRA’s Ops-Plus for WMD Hazmat course can be taken individually or led by an instructor, and it is designed to run on the older computers found in today’s firehouses and police stations.

This project was supported by a cooperative agreement awarded to the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth College and administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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