American citizens depend on a skilled response force as their source of security during a threat, or following a disaster or mass casualty event. Training at FEMA's Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) focuses on incident management and emergency response to a catastrophic disaster. This training requires the finest teaching methods and the best instructional and support staff available.

Since 2006, the CDP has employed Role Player/Actors (RPA) who support training in a variety of roles. RPAs simulate survivors in a variation of disaster scenarios depicting chaotic scenes of emergency response and tragic consequences.

"Everything here is based on making training real for the students," said Craig Burt, an RPA controller. "RPAs bring the real world to training. It is more realistic when the responder students are working with a living person and all their emotion, as opposed to dealing with a mannequin or piece of cardboard."

A city mayor, pregnant woman, injured traveller, inebriated patient, hostile father, gunshot victim, and a variety of other RPAs pack the inside of a hospital or scream for help following a subway railcar crash. RPAs add to the chaos as emergency responders treat the injured, decontaminate survivors, and mitigate a disaster scene.

"Training that includes actual people in the emergency scenes [better] represents a crisis," said Stephanie Horton, an RPA. "Explosions and bad things happen-it is the world we live in and first responders are the ones who rush to the call. I feel our participation is super important to training."

"Our training is enhanced by the Role Player/Actors," said Chuck Medley, assistant director of Training and Education. "Feedback from the most seasoned responders makes our role playing/actor program necessary. The attention to detail and genuine care for training is evident in our product and role players set the benchmark."

Prior to 2006 role players were pulled from fulltime support duties and integrated into the training curriculum. This integration interfered with daily organizational responsibilities. The CDP now employes approximately 75 RPAs, who usually work 30-40 hours each month. Having a pool of RPAs allows instructional and other support staff to focus on training and adds a touch of realism to the scenarios and exercises played out on a weekly basis.

"We portray a scene emergency responders will deal with in an actual situation," said Mary Smith, an RPA. "We make the students uncomfortable and they learn more. It is a wonderful job and I'm proud to do my part-we are helping."

"I don't believe anyone realizes the level of training going on here," said John Cassell, RPA. "It is amazing and self-satisfying knowing I had a part in helping people train to save lives."

"Our role players range in age from 19 to 77 years old," said Burt. "It is hard to have a 19-year-old act the part of a 70-year-old and look realistic. We have the versatility to match the age to specific people."

"Role playing and acting makes the students stop and think and work a lot harder," said Michael Peek, an RPA. "Our acting pushes them and stresses them and not just allow a student to go through the motions."

"The emotion is intense," said Smith. "Sometimes we are so into character we actually cry and the students do as well. When responders respond with tears, you know you are reaching them and they are giving it their all."

Role playing and in-character acting isn't for everyone and not all who are selected make it. According to Burt, the students are the best judge. Once selected, RPAs are trained in the application of moulage (makeup and molds depicting injuries), they observe the more seasoned RPAs, and study emotional responses and how most people act in a variety of situations.

"Our RPAs are passionate and take it very seriously," Burt added. "We explain the vital role they play in training the first responders of our nation. They may be the difference between responding to a situation and saving lives or freezing up and costing lives. The first responders are our first line of defense here at home and deserve the best training."

CDP training is fully funded for tribal, state, and local response personnel. Round-trip air and ground transportation, lodging, and meals are provided at no cost to responders or their agency or jurisdiction. The CDP plays a leading role in preparing state, local and tribal responders to prepare for and respond to manmade events or major accidents involving mass casualties. To learn more about the Center for Domestic Preparedness, visit or call 866-213-9553. Visit the CDP on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.