I was recently asked by a client about my thoughts on pre-developed or ‘canned’ exercises. As it turns out, I have a lot of feelings about them, most of them negative. Pre-developed exercises, if properly understood and applied, can be a huge help, but the big problem is that we’re dealing with human nature, and some people are just damn lazy. Garbage in, garbage out.
We need to keep in mind that exercises, fundamentally, are developed to validate plans. Not my plans. Your own plans. While standards of practice mean that most plans have a high degree of commonality (i.e. a HazMat response plan for a jurisdiction in California will be largely the same as one for a jurisdiction in New York State), it’s often the deviations from the standards and the local applications that need to be tested most. So it doesn’t do well for anyone to replicate an exercise that doesn’t test your own plans. Similarly, the foundation of exercise design is objectives. While the pre-developed exercise may have a theme that coincides with what you want to test, sheltering, for example, there are a lot of different aspects of sheltering. The pre-developed exercise might not focus on what you need to exercise. With all this, anyone who wants a quality exercise from something pre-developed is going to have to do a lot of re-development, which might be more frustrating than starting from scratch.
If you want a quality exercise, you really can’t short cut the process. Not only might HSEEP be required for whatever grant funding you are using for the exercise, but it’s a best practice – and for good reason. So often people want to cut corners. If you do, the final product will look like you’ve cut corners. It might lack proper context, good reference documents, or meaningful evaluation. The exercise planning meetings have defined purpose, and the documents help capture that process and communicate the intent to specific audiences.
On the other hand, there are proper ways to use materials from a previously developed exercise to benefit your own exercise. The development of good questions in discussion-based exercises and injects for operations-based exercises can be a challenge. Reviewing other exercises, especially when there might be some similarity or overlap in objectives, can be a huge help, so long as they are properly contextualized and relate back to objectives for your exercise. This isn’t a copy and paste, though… as it all should still be applied within the exercise design process.
There are some exercises out there that might seem like exceptions to what I’ve written above. The first that comes to mind are FEMA’s Virtual Table Top Exercises (VTTX). The VTTX is a great program, conducted monthly, focusing on different themes and hazards. FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) assembles a package of materials that go to each community registered for the event, allowing a measure of local customization. While jurisdictions may use this material differently, it is at least an opportunity to discuss relevant topics and hopefully capture some ideas for future implementation.
Similarly, my company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, recently completed a contract with the Transportation Research Board for a project in which we developed a number of ‘generic’ exercises for airports. These functional exercises, facilitated through a web-based tool, can be easily customized to meet the needs of most airports across the nation and are written with objectives focused on the fundamentals of EOC management within the timeline of an incident. While specific plans aren’t directly referenced in the exercises, airport personnel are able to examine the structure of response in their EOC and can reflect on their own plans, policies, and procedures. Similar to FEMA’s VTTX series, they aren’t a replacement for a custom-developed exercise, but they can help examine some fundamentals and start some important discussions. I’m not able to get into much more detail on this project, as the final report has yet to be published, but look forward to future posts about it.
All in all, I tend to caution against using pre-developed exercises. I simply think that most people don’t use them with the right intent and perspective, which can severely limit, or even skew, outcomes. That said, there exists potential for pre-developed exercises to be properly applied, so proceed with caution and with your wits about you. Understanding that time, money, and other resources can be scarce, emergency management has always done well with ‘borrowing best practices’. While there is sometimes nothing wrong with that, short cutting the process will often short cut the benefits. Do it right. Use of a custom-developed exercise is going to maximize benefit to your community or organization.
© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP