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Facility, Program Prepare Groups For Emergencies

national guard
The National Guard utilizes the Incident Command Simulation Training program's command suite as a "real-life command center" during Hurricane Rita, when evacuees were sheltered at SHSU.

A student walks into a high school, opens fire and begins taking hostages. An airplane carrying 150 passengers crashes in a field near your city. A Category 4 hurricane is threatening your town.

What would you do in any of those scenarios? Would you be prepared to handle all of the issues and repercussions that may result?

Dealing with those types of emergencies is exactly what Sam Houston State University’s new Incident Command Simulation Training program has been teaching Texas law enforcement agencies and other organizations for the past 18 months.

InCoSiT is the only one of its type in the United States, according to director David Webb, who designed the program with colleague Hakan Can at the university’s Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas. The idea came from Webb’s experience with the British police service.

“One of the priorities for commanders in Britain is to have training on critical incident command. We would carry out table-top exercises, as well as major real-time exercises,” Webb said. “A few years ago LEMIT wasn’t delivering any critical incident management training.

“We thought we would try and design a system where you would put people in what we call an immersive training environment,” he said. “An immersive training environment is one where the participants actually believe that they are dealing with an incident because their working environment it as life-like as we can make it.”

Now, two and a half years later, a year of which was design and building, InCoSiT has trained incident command teams from around the state of Texas, as well as ones from South American states.

“We train participants on a wide range of critical incidents, ranging from a variety of man-made to natural disasters, so we’ll look at terrorism, the bird flu, ricin, as well as train derailments, a plane crash, a hostage taking a school or university and hurricanes,” Webb said. “We try and train the people in things they are likely to deal with.

“I think what makes us different from other training providers is that we don’t come up with fantastic ideas about helicopters crashing down on people, where people can’t win in the situation,” he said. “We want people to win; we want them to make good decisions and get themselves out of critical incidents. That is really what it is all about – the capability of critical incident command teams to make sound decisions.”

The university-funded complex includes a suite of three rooms: a classroom, where participants watch each other in action; a control room, where InCoSiT staff members run the simulation; and a command suite, where a nine-person command team runs through real-life scenarios in real time.

To make the training session as real as possible, InCoSiT works with CBS in Bryan-College Station to develop “breaking news” scenarios that will interrupt one of the four newscasts on a split-screen television.

When this happens, the command team goes into the command suite and begins working to solve the issue at hand.

“We train people according to roles. Within the command teams there is obviously a commander; then there are eight other roles. We train the operations guy, the logistics person, the public information officer, and there are specific duties,” Webb said. “If they know that role, they can fit into a command team operating anywhere. So, you’re not just training a group of people to work with each other, you are training specific roles within a team.”

The simulation is run in “real time,” meaning the events unfold as they would in an actual, real-life situation, sometimes lasting four to 10 hours, Webb said.

“We have the capacity to interject a breaking news story in a regular TV broadcast, so participants really think that the breaking news stories are real. We will run incidents for the same amount of time as they would take on the street,” he said.

“So there’s no stopping for a cup of coffee or anything like that,” he said. “After we’ve been going for an hour or so, we might change over and take one team out and put another one in, but we keep the scenario running. The action keeps going even though one team is briefing an incoming team – just in the same way as it would happen in a real operation.”

The exercises can be very stressful for participants, but the whole purpose of the program is to encourage people to formulate plans, ask the right questions and make the right decisions.

“It gets quite warm in here; it’s quite a production,” he said. “It’s not a cheap form of training. There is plenty of that about, and that’s what people get – cheap training; the LEMIT program is a real quality program.

“This whole thing, critical incidents management, is about the quality of the decision that command teams make, so there is a great emphasis of decision-making,” he said. “We also train on elements of leadership and team building because those are important as well.”

digital imaging table
Trainees look at a map on the Digital Imaging Table.

The training complex is supported through many advanced technological devices, from flat-screen televisions and a projector in the classroom to the numerous work stations, complete with computers, phones and televisions that show what everyone is working on, as well as small microphones embedded in the ceiling of the command suite, which allow the classroom participants to hear what is going on in crystal-clear sound.

“We rely very heavily on GIS, geographical information systems, and we use a lot of maps, and aerial photographs,” he said “We can take you down into a high school with three-dimensional maps and fly you in and around (buildings).”

In addition, a $350,000 piece of equipment, called a Digital Imaging Table, allows for a combination of multimedia including enhanced computer graphics to be displayed.

“You can bring together aerial photography, over-flights by planes and embed that with maps and lots of different layers of data. Whichever combination you want to show, you can,” Webb said. “If you click on a spot on a map, it will actually explode to show you where you are, like movie pictures—it has that sort of capability. So if people ask for the right data, it should give them much better information upon which they can make a decision.”

The command suite was even used for seven days and seven nights by the National Guard when refugees were brought to Huntsville during Hurricane Rita, serving as a “real-life command center,” he said.

In addition, the suite will be used to train two teams for SHSU to handle such cases as last year’s hurricane.

“They did a great job last year; this is just to try to do it even better,” Webb said.

While Texas law enforcement agencies are trained for free under the LEMIT charter, InCoSiT will also train others, such as emergency medical services, fire service, public works, health care, public health and education and campus safety for a fee.

“The nationally-mandated response is one of unified command, which is not just police working in isolation,” Webb said. “It can be whatever agencies need to be working together to provide the appropriate management response.”

Training sessions are usually 40 hours and designed for 30 participants. LEMIT’s staff includes Debra Gawron, who has a long history training critical incident management, and Magdalena McMillan, the program coordinator at InCoSiT, who is one of the few instructors in Texas qualified to train managers at the “300” and “400” FEMA levels.

The specialized training received through InCoSiT is in compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Incident Management System and National Response Plan guidelines.

Participants receive certification from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, the State Board of Education and Commissioner.

For more information, or to take a virtual tour of the facility, visit




SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
August 3, 2006
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Writer: Jennifer Gauntt
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