There is always room for improvement -- especially in emergency response. The unforeseen circumstances that arise during emergencies and disasters often make each response a learning experience for next time.

Emergency responders are constantly striving to do better, regardless of how long they've been on the job. Firefighters, EMTs, Police, and other responders are continuously preparing themselves for the hurdles they face in their trade and new circumstances that may present themselves in the future.

Training opportunities are plentiful and available year-round in Vermont and can often be taught in individual towns on request. These sessions are usually free to attend and include hands-on training or classroom instruction on the Incident Command System and other topics.

Responders can put concepts learned in training into practice with disaster exercises. Emergency drills present a set of circumstances responders routinely face or extreme situations that aren't as common but could pose a challenge in the future.

In 2010 the state of Vermont conducted a full-scale catastrophic exercise for state and local responders who chose to take part in the drill. The scenario that weekend included a hurricane passing through Vermont causing massive flooding, washing out many roads, and destroying homes. That scenario was developed as an extreme, unlikely set of circumstances that were still possible in Vermont. One year later many of those same responders played out the scenario in real life when Tropical Storm Irene presented many of those same challenges. The Irene response was still a challenge for everyone, but the exercise did make responders who had been through it before more effective than they would have been without the prior experience.

That's an extreme example, but it does highlight the importance of training and exercises and is the very reason why many responders spend more time training and exercising than they do plying their trade for real. Exercises allow for identification of strengths and areas for improvement in a consequence-free environment. Strengths and areas for improvement are identified in exercises and improved for real-life scenarios; lessons learned and applied are best done in an artificial environment as opposed to real life.

Communities in the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant (Vernon, Guilford, Halifax, Brattleboro, Dummerston, and Marlboro in Vermont) conduct disaster exercises at a minimum of four times a year. The Radiological Emergency Response Plan exercise is designed to evaluate preparedness, plans, procedures, and other aspects of radiological response. Schools in the EPZ also conduct bus drills to practice loading kids on buses and calculate travel time to safety in the event of an evacuation -- among other exercises.

During the first week of June of this year Vermont will conduct another catastrophic exercise (Cat2) in communities around the state. Municipalities, response organizations, healthcare facilities, private sector entities, and others were offered the opportunity to take part in the drill and many will do so. Towns will practice set-up and operations of emergency shelters, hospitals will evaluate their surge capabilities, the state will operate its emergency operations center continuously for 36 hours, among other activities.

As with all other exercises, planners and evaluators will see what works well and note what needs improvement. Those improvements will be built into a plan to make procedures more effective or fill gaps that exist in manpower or equipment. Training programs will also be updated based on these findings.

There are many opportunities for anyone who wants to take part in emergency response; most local fire departments operate with volunteers, as do rescue squads. One can join a Community Emergency Response Team and assist with ancillary response activities like traffic control or searches. Visit http://vem.vermont.gov/programs/cert for more information on CERT opportunities.

If you are an emergency responder and would like to take advantage of more training opportunities please visit the VT DEMHS training calendar at http://vem.vermont.gov/event or the Vermont Fire Academy at http://firesafety.vermont.gov/fire_training.

Joe Flynn is Director of the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. He has also has a long history in emergency response as a fire chief and deputy sheriff.