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HSToday Q&A: CDP Superintendent Tony Russell Discusses Training First Responders to Face the Worst

"The training offered at the CDP matters and every member of the CDP family takes great pride in that fact."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala., provides advanced, all-hazards training to approximately 50,000 emergency responders annually from state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, as well as the federal government, foreign governments, and private entities, as available. The scope of training includes preparedness, protection, and response. Courses at the CDP campus in Anniston, Ala., include hands-on training at the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological and Radiological (COBRA) Training Facility, where responders train using nerve agents GB (Sarin) and VX, as well as non-pathogenic strains of anthrax and ricin. The Noble Training Facility is a former Army hospital that is now the only hospital training facility dedicated solely to preparing the healthcare, public health, and environmental health communities for mass casualty events related to terrorism or natural disasters.

HSToday Q&A: CDP Superintendent Tony Russell Discusses Training First Responders to Face the Worst Homeland Security Today

CDP Superintendent Tony Russell previously served as FEMA Region VI Regional Administrator and Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) for Region VIII, and also served as the superintendent of the Emergency Management Institute (EMI). As CDP superintendent, Russell provides executive level management and leadership for the center as it provides its unique, hands-on training; he is responsible for operations of the CDP’s 176-acre campus. To mark National Preparedness Month, HSToday talked with Russell about the CDP’s mission and the importance of preparedness for all hazards among first responders and the people they serve.

Q: The reach of the Center for Domestic Preparedness is impressive and invaluable; what are your plans to expand this specialized training to even more responders and communities?

A: Since our inception in 1998, the CDP has focused on providing the highest quality and most current training needed to increase first responder and community level preparedness and nationwide capabilities. Our “North Star” focus has always been, and will continue to be, to deliver our critical training to state, local, tribal and territorial responders with the greatest need and where it will have the greatest impact.

We do this through a combination of resident, non-resident and indirect training programs, as well as Virtual Instructor-Led Training courses and distance learning offerings. While our virtual training options are becoming more widely available, I never want to lose sight of the “hands-on” nature of what we teach.

Learning and knowledge transfer is more than simply reading or viewing course content. The peer-to-peer, student-to-instructor and group dynamics are essential elements to effective learning.

As a way to expand our reach and impact, we are redoubling our efforts in the train-the-trainer program. This is where we invite seasoned professionals to come to campus to train in both technical proficiencies as well as sound instructional delivery practices. These newly developed trainers then go back to their various communities to train others. This approach ensures the highest quality of knowledge transfer and the ability to have some of the same essential elements of an on-campus class experience, but at an alternate, jurisdictional-hosted venue.

Through the above approaches, we are positioned to continue our outreach and connection with both the first responder and first receiver community nationwide, ensuring we are there to meet the training needs and requirements of those brave patriots who serve their communities every day.

Q: What do you count as CDP’s greatest achievement in preparedness programs thus far?

A: It is very difficult to single out just one achievement over our more than 20 years of existence. For instance, we expanded our training by incorporating lessons learned and best practices following the Tokyo subway attack and 9/11. Also, our instructors were able to quickly provide training on the types of devices used after the horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing. We have expansive healthcare emergency response training, which has assisted in mitigating such infectious disease threats as Ebola and COVID-19. Additionally, our staff provided essential, multi-faceted support to the nation in response to the 2017 hurricane season and other disasters.

But, with all those major organizational achievements rightfully highlighted, for me, the greatest accomplishment is truly the way our training helps prepare the student first responder and first receiver to be confident and competent when called upon to do their job in a time of need.

I feel such a sense of organizational pride when I get feedback from former students opining that due to the training they received at the CDP, they don’t think they could have been able to help their jurisdictions as they did. From an overturned tanker car in a rural area which a CDP alumnus was able to manage, easing citizens’ concerns, to other students leading the way in managing their hospital’s pandemic response and every imaginable emergency scenario in between and beyond. The training offered at the CDP matters and every member of the CDP family takes great pride in that fact.

Q: COVID-19 highlighted exactly why all-hazards training is so critical for first responders, but the pandemic also affected in-person training and exercises across agencies. What modifications at CDP expanded or enhanced the center’s reach and will be carried forward?

A: Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic caused us, and probably every other training entity, to rethink how we were doing business.

In early 2020, we were forced to, almost exclusively, shift to virtual and distance learning training modalities. This quick pivot allowed us to continue reaching as many responders as we could, providing them with training they needed, despite the ever-changing pandemic environment across our nation.

Now that the situation has finally improved and we continue to increase our on-campus footprint, we will still use the various virtual modalities we have developed, both synchronous and asynchronous, but more as prerequisites or for awareness level, sustaining and informational purposes.

Of particular note, we will expand our use of prerequisites with the intent to have students complete course material online beforehand. This enables the student, whether on campus or at another mobile location, to spend more time with practical applications and gained-skills demonstrations, ensuring the potential responder truly knows what to do.

I remain a strong advocate that some skills must be learned and applied in an environment where instructors, coaches and mentors can provide in-person guidance, knowledge transfer and feedback.

We will carry forward the many virtual training modalities to support, but not supplant, the quality, in-person student experience the CDP is nationally recognized for.

Q: Responders may feel that they have skills deficits in some areas more than others – which training area sees the highest demand?

A: Being receptive to student feedback and then taking action to fill those gaps is a key element of our truly “student-centered” training organization and a constant focus of our business model.

We provide various avenues and mechanism for feedback from our student first responders, first receivers, emergency managers and others in various disciplines, enabling them to have a voice in what we teach here at the CDP. They have website access, telephone communications, student evaluation feedback and surveys, and, of course, while a student is on campus, they can discuss ideas and concepts with any member of the staff.

The answer to the highest demand question is constantly evolving as the threat spectrum changes. At the moment, the public order and public safety focused area is receiving a lot of attention, as the need to have law enforcement officials highly trained in the proper principles of public order and the protection of First Amendment rights is critical to the way this nation functions. In coordination with FEMA’s Office of Law Enforcement and Engagement, we have expanded course deliveries in that domain.

We are also in constant consultation with entities such as the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (of which the CDP is a partner), the Emergency Management Institute, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, National Fire Academy and many others to help us determine what curriculum we need to develop and deliver for maximum effectiveness and to ensure we are not duplicating efforts, while maximizing valuable resources.

HSToday Q&A: CDP Superintendent Tony Russell Discusses Training First Responders to Face the Worst Homeland Security Today
First responders train in Disaster Related Exposure Assessment and Monitoring (DREAM). (FEMA Center for Domestic Preparedness photo)

Q: How can industry best work with CDP in advancing its mission?

A: I am a firm believer that no one person or entity has all the right answers, especially given the dynamic nature of our evolving disaster landscape. With such risks as climate change and how we adapt and deal with its impact on communities and nations, I think we need all oars in the water for us to be at our “national” best. Industry is surely a part of the solution-set. My staff, through work with organizations such as DHS’ Science and Technology office, constantly researches new developments in industry, which can inform the way we do business. This will be a continual process of learning and discovery as we all have the same goal – a secure and resilient nation.

Q: What feedback from responders who have experienced CDP programs stands out to you the most?

A: I must say, emphatically, hearing directly from individual responders, community leaders and many others on how training received at the CDP helped them navigate a crisis event or how they were able to respond to the needs of impacted people is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my job.

I have emails thanking the CDP’s training for providing expertise to manage major overflows and triage at both rural and urban hospitals. I’ve had telephone conversations with tribal partners expressing sincere appreciation for training which gave them the confidence to deal with great adversity. Letters have come from public officials touting how training received by their responders at the CDP provided an enduring readiness posture, and when faced with a challenge, the team was well-prepared to answer the call.

That is only a small sample of the truly sincere feedback I receive constantly from alumni students and jurisdictions, telling me the CDP and its staff is really making a difference where it matters most. I call that “training at the point of need.” The value of what the CDP does cannot be overstated.

Q: DHS HQ and FEMA have emphasized efforts to increase communication and collaboration with tribal communities. How will CDP be working with tribal responders?

A: This is very near and dear to my heart, as the need to provide equitable access to the CDP’s products and services is, and has been, at the very top of my list of priorities.

The efforts begin with communications and developing a relationship. The CDP has a long history of working with tribal responders. In particular, since 2015, we have held what we call Tribal Nations Training Week, where the entire campus is dedicated to providing training to tribal members.

The agenda for that week is driven by a Tribal Nations Focus Group. I term the resultant agenda “For them, by them, with us” – meaning all we do during that week is derived from the training needs and gaps defined by the focus group.

This has been extremely successful and held in high esteem by our tribal partners. The CDP also has representation on the FEMA Tribal Affairs working group, to be able to both share our valuable experiences with working with tribal members and determine if there are other ways for the CDP to expand its reach to even more innovative opportunities. This is an exciting time to observe the growth of this most valuable and cherished relationship.

Q: What has your extensive emergency background shown you about the preparedness of average Americans? What is the greatest preparedness weakness and how can Americans correct this in their personal and community planning?

A: That is a very complex question, as it can be difficult to define the average American – our diversity, culture and experience makes us all so unique, yet united. If I had to land on something, data shows many people do not take preparedness as seriously as I would recommend.

We read and hear constantly that only a small percentage of people adhere to the very basic tenants of preparedness which are to: have a plan, make a preparedness kit and stay informed.

A full description of each item mentioned above can be found on the website ready.gov and I would encourage everyone to take some time to explore that website and see how they can use the information provided to better prepare themselves, their families and their communities.

Personally, the greatest preparedness oversight I have seen is people thinking it could not happen to them, so they don’t take the time and effort to prepare. I cannot count the many times, in my duties as both a Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) or Regional Administrator, I have walked the streets and grounds of disaster locations, talked to survivors and heard, “I never dreamed this could happen me.”

It would just bring tears to my eyes, as the impact of the event, coupled with their very low level of preparedness, left them devastated and, sometimes, hopeless. So, let me foot-stomp this point – disasters can happen any time and any place so, everyone, please do your part to be proactive and prepared.

Q: How has your military experience contributed to your approach to emergency management, preparedness, and instructing first responders?

A: Spending 23 years in the United States Marine Corps was a formative and life-changing experience for me. Being a part of what I consider to be the finest military organization in the world (yes, I know, I am showing my bias here!), taught me the value of duty, honor and sacrifice.

Now, apply just those three values to emergency management and first responders.

Emergency managers and first responders understand their duty is to go above and beyond in service to the community, regardless of where they serve. They perform their tasks and functions with honor; head held high knowing they are doing things to the best of their ability, with integrity and respect. They also sacrifice, serving long hours, dealing with various degrees of complexity and putting others before themselves.

These attributes integrate seamlessly from the military to what I do with FEMA at the CDP. I feel so privileged and honored to have the opportunity to teach technical skills to responders endeavoring to build a more prepared, secure, and resilient nation, while sharing the attributes, attitude and passion of a higher calling of service to others. I have the best job in FEMA, maybe even the federal government, and I am humbled to serve in this capacity.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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