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Published: November 5, 2020

Developing a ‘COVID-19 Secure’ HEAT course.

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Online courses rapidly show their limits when it comes to teaching hostile environment awareness training (HEAT). In this blog, Michelle Newton, from Clarity Security Training, shares Clarity’s experience of developing a live training in the midst of a pandemic and Megan Hooson, a new starter at GISF, shares her experiences attending it.

When the pandemic started, like everyone, we explored online learning options. Despite developing a comprehensive online first aid refresher course, we quickly realised that only some elements of first aid can be taught online. Some of the trauma and security elements would not work as well, and that we could only accredit basic qualifications using this method.

Given that needs for humanitarian assistance were not going away and that aid workers continued to need training in order to be deployed, we decided to get up and running again with a live HEAT course.

Creating ‘COVID-19 secure’ environments and building resilience to the threat levels

Recognising that the training had to evolve to the new world was the first step. The UK government, at the time, had a set of 12 workplace guidelines for creating a COVID-19 secure environment, none of which were specific to our sector. We read all of them and scrutinised our current set-up.

Venues had to be visited with fresh eyes: were they suitable now that we had social distancing to consider? Could we do ‘Close Protection’ training socially distanced? Could we do trauma first aid with dummies instead of humans and still achieve the same result? The answer was no, and the micro-examination of every detail began. The biggest challenges were to find adequate training locations and ensure that we had enough people (participants, trainers and actors) to run the training. Two of our usual venues had closed in the first lockdown, and many staff had been shielding. Making the course safe to attend without losing too many elements was critical.

We moved from our ‘rustic’ training centre, where we usually operate all functions (including dormitory-style accommodation and catering), to a local hotel. The hotel was operating under the highest level of biosecurity at the time and had been used as a quarantine hotel for key workers. We chose to outsource our accommodation, training rooms and catering to them. We knew they would not close and had quarantine protocols in place should anyone become ill or show symptoms, which was essential to enhancing our training’s resilience.

“I was very aware that I was coming from a very high-risk area, as Manchester had been placed into ‘tier 3 restrictions’ the week before. It did make me worry that other participants might feel uncomfortable having me there.”

We were conscious that regulations and risk levels were likely to evolve at any time. The biosecurity levels are the restrictions the UK government use to make decisions on what stays open and what closes. During the training, our zone was in Level 3, which designates a state where ‘the virus is in general circulation – social distancing is relaxed’. We had however made the choice, during our planning, to operate at Level 4 (‘a high or rising level of transmission – social distancing is enforced’) as a baseline, thus ensuring that training would occur regardless of changes to the local context.

This anticipation of changing levels proved beneficial given that local lockdowns and heightened restrictions on movement were imposed on training zones just before the course was due to start.

The Biosecurity Declaration

During the early planning stages to develop our COVID-19 secure training, we decided to produce a collective document for everyone involved in the training. This included participants, trainers, actors and support staff. The declaration aimed to make everyone take responsibility for their actions prior to the training. Everyone signing the document committed to taking all possible steps to mitigate risks of contamination, to follow the guidelines and avoid public transport as much as possible in the 14 days preceding the training.

As I don’t drive, one of the problems for me was not being able to travel by public transport. Thankfully, another colleague was able to drive me, but her bubble did have a ‘COVID scare’ a few days before, which questioned my attendance on the course. What would have happened if my colleague had tested positive? What if neither of us drove? Could we cover the costs of renting a private taxi for such a long drive?”

The declaration also enabled participants to make informed decisions about the simulations and understand that social distancing would be breached. Operating in close contact was indeed critical to perform first aid and security drills, and to ensure all participants passed the training. This declaration represents the basis of Clarity’s biosecurity strategy, in that it recognises the most important element of such training – that participants feel safe to attend.

If anything, signing the declaration made me more reassured about attending the course. I think it did help to create a level of trust between participants before we all met. It felt like we were all going in with the same level of ‘commitment’ to the course.”

Training Bubbles

To limit transmission risks and enable follow-up should there be a COVID-19 case, we created different training ‘bubbles’ including participant bubbles, a trainer bubble, and a few actor bubbles for the simulation. The bubbles did interact with each other during the week, but only where full disposable PPE was provided.

The pre-allocated groups stayed in their bubbles all week, including travelling together, sitting at the same table for training and meals every day. It felt dystopian to tell grown adults how to get to places, what to wear, where to sit and eat and even where to go to the toilet. However, everyone expressed their appreciation at the level of detail that went into keeping the bubbles secure and recognised that it enabled participants, trainers and actors, to feel safe during training.

“The bubbles helped all of us become more comfortable with each other, as we didn’t have to be as much on our guard or ‘police’ someone if they got to close us. It helped the experience feel somewhat ‘normal’ and enable us to bond as a team, which was key to do the simulation well.”

 Training Site Protocols

The nuts and bolts of our security and first aid training takes place during our large field simulations. Usually, up to eight different scenes can take place over two days, but operating our normal simulation was not going to work. Every detail had to be re-examined in the light of biosecurity, every element was risk assessed, and we decided early on to embed the pandemic into the training at every level.

We developed extensive protocols to mitigate risks at every stage, considering every interaction during our simulations. Amongst others, measures included:

  • Daily temperature checks
  • Wardrobe, kit, props, simulation vehicles and SFX allocated individually
  • PPE kits /changes between each scene
  • Tap out protocol to include tapping out due to feeling unsafe by proximity
  • Participation in the NHS Track & Trace system

Actors were further briefed to include the pandemic within the scenarios. For example, our militia actors now ‘accuse’ participants of bringing the virus to their zone, and casualties are concerned that first responders are getting too close, despite being desperate for help. Visits to risk assess places now include the need for a cure and medication, and local hospitals are overrun.

Embedding the pandemic into the training provides a new safety element that our participants will be facing during deployment, and a snapshot of potential realities they may face.

Evaluating and adapting the HEAT course

“I was really impressed by the way Clarity ran the course given the existing regulations. Having never attended a HEAT training before, the ‘new normal’ was just the normal for me, and I was able to fully emerge myself into the training.”

The evaluation was very reassuring.  Everyone who participated felt that the course was safe to attend, met the learning objectives and achieved the goal of operating HEAT in a COVID-19 secure environment.

As the pandemic becomes part of our lives for the foreseeable future, we need to continue responding to changes and prepare humanitarian workers for operating within it.

Adapting rapidly to the changing world and identifying new security threats is what HEAT training is all about, and biosecurity is no different.


About the author

Michelle Newton has worked as a freelance creative consultant and writer in the education and business sector for over 20 years, working on various projects for different organisations. With a background in performing arts, psychology and education, finding creative ways to inspire learning and development using these elements is the motivating force behind her work. Working with Clarity Security Training, Michelle assists with


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