Exercise Orion 2010


Exercise Orion 2010 took place during the first week of September 2010 at locations across England. It was centered on an earthquake scenario designed to simulate an event that has a very low likelihood of occurring in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and therefore is outside all normal planning assumptions. The exercise concept is that this is "training for reality" and not a showcase. The U.K. has a highly developed, well-coordinated and practiced response to resolving incidents. This exercise provided another avenue to share experiences with multiple participants.

Urban search and rescue (USAR) teams from the U.K. were joined by teams from the European Union and a team from the United Arab Emirates during this exercise. The main field exercises were held on two sites outside Portsmouth, England. Fort Widley was home to the primary field exercise activities. This Napoleonic-era facility is regularly used by members of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) USAR group. Multiple scenario locations were created for this exercise. To prepare for this massive event, members of the HFRS/USAR team spent more than four months developing the site by constructing new challenges and updating/modifying existing locations within the complex.

In addition to the Fort Widley site, they used an adjacent facility. This location consisted of a multi-story building currently under demolition. This site challenged rescue specialists working on the ground as well as the logistics components of the teams that were put to the test by having multiple locations to support during the exercise.

The exercise started with a simulated earthquake that triggered the response of more than 20 HFRS units. These companies were met by exercise staff members and role players in a manner that mirrored a Hollywood production. The level of realism created by the HFRS staff immediately challenged the first responders and set the stage for the following days of activity.


The first challenge faced was the "Widley Cliff Apartment," consisting of exterior and interior challenges. The "North Block" rubble pile had numerous casualties, including unhurt but dazed and injured surface casualties, lightly trapped, heavily trapped and deeply hidden victims. The many passageways in the fort provided means to create safe havens and access points for victims to be placed inside the "collapsed structure" and for exercise staff to constantly monitor the operations of the rescue teams and the safety of all exercise participants.

Many of the rescuers' skills were challenged by the exercise development team. Rope access was needed to climb down to damaged roof structures, followed by vertical rope access down to internal apartments. The pancake collapse required breaching and breaking skills along with shoring and monitoring to create safe havens for rescue operations.

The next area that rescuers came upon was known as "Widley Gorge Bridge East" and "West." The collapsed bridge offered numerous challenges. A van pulling a camper was overturned with the camper hanging over the edge of the embankment (all designed with hidden safety cables to ensure safety during the exercise). Cars were scattered about on the bridge surface, all with simulated victims.

Below the bridge a section of engineered concrete slabs represented the collapsed road surface. This component covered four trapped vehicles and tons of rubble, all designed with access for victims and exercise staff via passageways from the interior of the fort. The rescue teams' objectives included breaching the road surface, tunneling to the victims and assessing the victims' condition prior to packaging them for removal.

All props were designed to be reset by exercise staff, allowing scenario locations for all participants. This capability provided all participants with realistic challenges during the four days of activity, during which time there was a 48-hour period of continuous operations.


Coordination of all resources of the USAR component was monumental. The exercise began with more than 20 HFRS units responding to the incident. Once the magnitude of the incident was identified, additional U.K. USAR resources were summoned to the scene. As the event escalated, the need for additional assistance was transmitted. USAR teams from Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates also participated in the exercise. Once on scene, these teams worked under real-time conditions and were often called on to respond to various scenarios during their time on site. Most of the teams used the event as a "full operational test," while others tested "light equipment deployment." Modes of transportation varied from team to team as did each team's ability to self sustain.

While many of the teams were 100% self sufficient, others required assistance with team and equipment movement. This provided a real-time test of the U.K.'s ability to receive outside help while managing a major incident in its home communities. Teams provide their own housing/encampments or bases of operations at one centralized location. An overnight tent city was set up on what was the concrete foundation and surrounding lawn area of a recently demolished structure.

Also participating in every aspect of the exercise were large numbers of EMS and law enforcement personnel. EMS Hazardous Area Response Teams (HART) worked side by side with USAR teams evaluating patients and assisting in patient packaging and removal efforts. Post 9/11, the National Health Service in England has funded each regional ambulance service to train and equip paramedics to wear breathing apparatus and join firefighters in the "hot zone" to stabilize trapped casualties. The value of having pre-trained members of the EMS community capable of working side by side with USAR personnel in the rescue effort was well identified during this exercise.

Law enforcement was involved with victim identification through the work of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) teams that marked victim locations using global positioning systems (GPS). Police teams were also called on to find evidence related to exercise scenario-based crime scenes. One challenge placed on the police teams was the recovery of a knife (a possible crime scene item) from a flooded crypt inside the walls of the fort. This situation created a need for USAR, police technicians and police SCUBA personnel to work together to complete the given tasks.


The exercise was monitored by a team of evaluators whose mission was to observe and evaluate the interaction of the various teams deploying with the U.K. system. Members of this team of evaluators came from a number of European Union countries. Evaluators received training through the Netherlands Institute of Safety (Nibra). The Emergency Program Manager Master Class for Evaluators was used to prepare the evaluators for this exercise. The advanced training created a well-organized and functionally efficient team. This training program is based on four basic principles:

  • Certified evaluators must learn how to observe in an objective manner, how to apply the correct methods and how to make adequate diagnoses
  • Certified evaluators can make clear evaluations by choosing the right words when giving feedback
  • Certified evaluators are capable of writing clear evaluation reports with a purposeful text structure
  • Certified evaluators conduct themselves in a professional manner and respond as an authority in conflict management.

In addition to this week-long training, a one-day short course was provided for tactical evaluators from the USAR community who operated in direct proximity of the responding team. This training provided a consistent evaluation process to the entire exercise.


The U.K. uses a command structure similar to the Incident Command System (ICS) that is used in the United States. The U.K. system is designed to manage incidents involving a large number of agencies that need to cooperate and support each other. Having a defined system ensures that all agencies understand their roles and responsibilities in the combined response.

Within this framework, the management of the emergency response and recovery effort is undertaken at one or more of three ascending levels, which are defined by the differing functions rather than by specific rank, grade or status:

  • Bronze — Operational level. This is the level at which the management of immediate "hands-on" work is carried out.
  • Silver — Tactical level. The purpose of the Silver level is to ensure that actions taken by Bronze-level responders are coordinated, coherent and integrated to achieve maximum effectiveness and efficiency (usually comprised of the most senior officers of each agency committed within the area of operations and will assume tactical command of the event or situation).
  • Gold — Strategic level. Also known as the Strategic Coordination Group (SCG), this level is established during situations that have an especially significant impact or substantial resource implications, involving a large number of organizations or last for an extended duration. The SCG is to take overall responsibility for the multi-agency management of the emergency and to establish the policy and strategic framework within which the Silver level will work.

All three levels of command were established for this exercise. At each level, challenges were placed on participants and the decisions made were constantly evaluated by the exercise staff. Assistant Chief Fire Officer Roy Harold said, "A drill only serves its purpose if you can learn from it. And to learn from it, you need to evaluate." Using this mindset at all levels of command provides a realistic view of just where your capabilities stand and where you need and/or want to be.

Participants, evaluators and staff left the exercise site with many memories of challenges faced and overcome. Exercise Orion 2010 will be remembered as a great success and as an event that lived up to its vision of "training for reality."

BOB DUEMMEL, a Firehouse® Magazine and Firehouse.com contributing editor, is captain of the Special Operations Unit of the Rochester, NY, Fire Department and serves as the plans manager for New York Task Force 2 (NY TF-2). He is a member of the NYS USAR IST in the Operations Section and a member of the New York State Technical Rescue curriculum development team. Duemmel has delivered training to fire service, industrial, military and international rescue teams and has assisted with exercise evaluation for the United Kingdom and the European Union's USAR program. He is host of "The Buzz on Technical Rescue" at Radio@Firehouse.com and can be reached at bob.duemmel@firehouse.com. A version of this article appears on Firehouse.com.