Emergency Management Exercises: Not for the Inexperienced

Many think exercise design is easy.  I’ve seen agencies relegate it to interns and new staff with little supervision, or even performed by seasoned emergency managers with little concept of what the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) is.  Sadly, we have people completing HSEEP training and even FEMA’s Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) program, thinking they are ready to conquer the world of preparedness exercises, but with little practical experience designing exercises under their belts.  We all need to learn sometime.

Just as any organization or jurisdiction should be eased into their exercise program, exercise designers need to be eased into designing exercises.  They should be starting small and with focused tasks, always under the mentorship of someone experienced, even if they aren’t within your own agency, to give some guidance and feedback.  While HSEEP gives a lot of great guidance, exercise design can quickly become complex.  It can be easy to lose track of tasks or have an oversight.  There are political matters, organizational needs, safety issues, and simply good exercise practices that all need to be recognized and addressed.  I’ve seen far too many exercises go off the rails due to a lack of awareness of these issues, poor exercise design, and poor exercise management.

Have partner agencies (even if not participating) been properly notified?  Do notifications need to go out to the media or public so they are not alarmed?  How about dispatch?  Every exercise, especially operations-based exercises, should be periodically evaluated for risk throughout the design process.  Identify what actions or lack thereof can cause things to go bad.  Consider politics, the media, the public, and safety of participants, observers, and exercise staff.  Do you need a weapons policy?  How will you enforce it?  Are there risks associated with traffic?  How will exercise staff communicate?  The template for the Exercise Plan (ExPlan) prompts you to address some things, but there may be additional needs.

What contingencies do you have for inclimate weather?  Maybe you need to dip into the ICS tool box and conduct an incident (exercise) safety analysis, from that developing a safety plan (you can probably get a qualified/experienced safety officer to help you with this).  Consider what operations will be conducted in the exercise, what can go wrong, how you will mitigate against them, and what resources are needed if something does go wrong.  In the event of a real-world emergency, what needs to happen?  Should you have EMS standing by?  Should you have a rapid response team in reserve for a rescue situation?  The information assembled in your risk assessment and safety plans should be provided to exercise staff prior to the exercise as part of their pre-exercise briefings.

As with exercise design, it can be a great learning experience for new staff to be part of the exercise support staff, but don’t put them in charge.  You should have experienced staff serving in the key positions of exercise director, lead controller, and lead evaluator.  If you are using a simcell, you want a strong and experienced simcell lead.  Safety matters aside, the staff of an operations-based exercise need to have great awareness of what’s going on and excellent communication up their chain of command and with the simcell to ensure that the exercise is flowing properly.  For a discussion-based exercise, your facilitators should be experienced as well.  Participants in discussion-based exercises may take a discussion in a different direction.  While this is generally not desired, sometimes it does bring great unintended results.  An experienced facilitator should know how to properly handle this to ensure that participants and stakeholder agencies are getting the most benefit.

Far too many poorly designed exercises have gotten to execution, resulting in a failure to accomplish the exercise objectives, frustrating participants, and even resulting in inter-agency political issues or injuries.  Even a well-designed exercise can be poorly conducted or facilitated, getting similar results.  If you are new to emergency management and have little experience in the design, conduct, and evaluation of exercises, there is no shame in asking for help or at least another set of eyes to look over your exercise documents.  While we want to encourage learning and growth, no one learns properly by being shoved into a situation with no guidance and so many pitfalls.  Train people up properly, giving them mentored practical experience to compliment their classroom training. If you don’t have the personnel in place, there are a number of well experienced and well qualified firms (ahem…) that provide these services.

For more information on running an exercise program, take a look at this 10-part blog post.

What tips do you have for people new to the exercise world?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™

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