Training aid causes massive disruption – again!

Given my background and expertise in this field, I feel obliged to raise a few observations in relation to the Sydney ferry incident last week. This is not the first time that a training aid has caused considerable disruption, nor is it likely to be the last. There is no justifiable reason why a training aid should close down a ferry terminal, airport or disrupt an outback town – all of which have happened. Last week it appears the city’s main ferry terminal was closed for three hours due to a “suspicious item” being identified. It turned out that the item was a training aid designed to look like an improvised explosive device.

Unless the item is being used to train bomb technicians there is no reason why it needs to look like an IED. Also, in most jurisdictions having something that looks like an IED is illegal.

The aim of such training is to teach staff how to identify that which is out of place, that which does not fit the environment. It is not how to identify an IED. All staff need to know what to do if they identify such an item, how to get as much information as possible, how to report it and to whom. To practice this, items are needed that do not fit the area; they can and should be innocuous. The person running the exercise must record where they are placed and when they are recovered. The items should be numbered and be marked with a contact phone number in case they do “go rogue”.

The hard part of dealing with unattended items belongs to the manager who must decide if the item is likely to pose a hazard.   There are only three options: the item is lost property in which case it should be treated as such, it is rubbish and should be disposed of, or it may pose a hazard in which case an evacuation should be called and the emergency services notified. There is always the option to evacuate every time but there is nothing safe about moving hundreds or thousands of people in a manner they are not used to unless they are being moved away from a hazard.   Having a policy of always evacuating creates set patterns of behaviour that can be used by terrorists, creates unnecessary business disruption to the site and neighbours and brings into question the capability of management to manage such an incident. Failing to evacuate when there is a potential hazard risks life.

There are tools, both physical and procedural, that managers can use to determine if it is likely that the item may pose a hazard. Checking CCTV to see how it got there, talking to witnesses, checking to see if there is an exercise happening and a range of other information sources are available. Ensuring that all reports of unattended items are passed through the site’s emergency control organisation will also help to minimise disruption.

As awareness of terrorist activity increases so will reports of unattended items. Managers can: evacuate every time causing unnecessary disruption to all those around, not evacuate every time risking life, or institute a procedure to enable the item to be assessed so the most appropriate response can be initiated.

Don Williams MIExpE, IABTI, CPP, RSecP