Preparedness in the Pandemic Age

Planning, training, and exercises, as the foundational activities of preparedness, shouldn’t be stopping because of the pandemic. Preparedness is an ongoing activity which needs to forge ahead with little disruption – and there is always plenty to do! What must we do, though, to accommodate necessary precautions in the age of the Pandemic?

Let’s talk about planning first. The biggest relevant issue for planning is the conduct of stakeholder meetings. These may be larger group meetings to discuss and get buy-in on broader topics, or detailed small-group meetings to discuss very specific topics. Information, sometimes sensitive, is exchanged, presentations are given, and documents are reviewed. I’ve mentioned in various posts through the years the importance of properly preparing for meetings. Even for traditional in-person meetings, there are important things to consider, such as:

  1. Do you really need a meeting?
  2. Developing an agenda
  3. Having the right people in attendance
  4. Ensuring that all speakers and presenters are prepared
  5. Ensuring that all attendees are prepared to discuss the subject matter
  6. An adequate meeting space and support (technology, dry erase boards, etc)

All of these rules still apply in a virtual world, perhaps with even more emphasis. While we’ve obviously had video meeting technology for a long time, we’ve discovered this year that many people haven’t used it much or at all until earlier this year. The surge in use has also brought attention to the plethora of tools which can be facilitated through video conference platforms. While the simple sharing of video supports most of our meeting needs, we can share screens, conduct presentations, and use collaborative tools such as whiteboards and shared documents. Pretty much everything we do in an in-person meeting can be accomplished through video conference platforms – but those who arrange the calls need to take the time to become familiar with the tools and functionality; and if there is anything that needs to be done by participants (some of which are likely to be less tech-savvy) you need to be able to coach them through it. Some of these tools require integrations of other technology, such as cloud document storage or various apps. Remember that meetings should be interactive, so encourage people to use chatrooms to help queue up questions for presenters. If any documents or information are sensitive, be sure you are taking the appropriate precautions with how the meeting is set up, how participants are invited, and how documents are shared.

My tip… read reviews to determine which platform will best suit your needs and watch some tutorials on YouTube.

When it comes to remote training, so much of what I mentioned for stakeholder meetings will apply here. Being interactive is still incredibly important, as is the ability to integrate other technologies, such as videos, PowerPoint, and shared documents. When designing training that will be delivered remotely, if it helps, don’t think about the platform first – think about how you would do the training in person. Would you have breakout sessions for group work? That can be easily accomplished on video conference platforms, but it takes some preparation. Would you put things on a white board or chart paper? That can also be accomplished. Giving an exam? Having participants complete a survey or feedback form? Yes and yes. It can all be done, but preparation is key. Some instructors, especially in public safety, have gotten too used to simply showing up and delivering their material – not because they are lazy, but because they have done it dozens or hundreds of times. They have a routine. If you want participants to get a similar, or perhaps even better learning experience, some deliberate thought and preparation is required. Also, make sure you simply don’t become a talking head. Break things up and be dynamic. It’s easy for our own demeanor to elevate disinterest. I often stand (using a variable height standing desk) when giving presentations and conducting training. Being on my feet helps me push more energy into what I’m doing.

Tip… remember to give people breaks, just as you would in face-to-face training.

Lastly, exercises. A lot of this is a combination of the information I gave for planning and training. Exercise planning meetings need to be conducted, and every exercise has some extent of presentations, with discussion-based exercises having more emphasis on this obviously. To answer the big question – yes, most exercise can be conducted remotely! Obviously, discussion-based exercises are generally the lower-hanging fruit, so they can and should be happening remotely. Remember that exercises are supposed to be interactive experiences, so your exercise design absolutely must account for identifying the means and methods of engagement in the virtual environment. All the things I’ve mentioned already are prime options for this, such as breakout groups, shared documents, live polling, etc. Facilitators and evaluators can be assigned to specific breakout rooms or have access to all of them, allowing them to float from room to room.

What about operations-based exercises? Yes, there are options for conducting operations-based exercises remotely. First, we do need to acknowledge the obvious challenges associated with conducting drills and full-scale exercises via remote environments. Is it impossible? No, but it depends on what the focus of the exercise is. Something like a cyber-security or intelligence exercise may be more naturally brought into a virtual environment, depending on the exercise objectives or tasks. Games may be fully integrated into digital platforms already, which helps, but if they aren’t, these may need to be re-imagined and developed in a virtual environment. This can get expensive, so it really needs to be a properly thought through. Functional exercises, such as the typical command post exercise or emergency operations center (EOC) exercise, can absolutely be performed virtually. Many jurisdictions successfully ran their EOCs virtually during the height of the pandemic (many still are). If the actual activity can be performed virtually, it can (and should!) be exercised virtually. Again, preparation is key to ensuring that participants can do what they would normally do, while controllers and evaluators still have full access and visibility. Simulation Cells can be virtually integrated and most EOC management platforms are web-based. With some thought, we can bring most exercises into a virtual environment and still make them effective experiences while also meeting all HSEEP requirements.

Tip… For a virtual functional exercise, unless the time period of your exercise is set after the initial response, consider including an objective for the participants (and the tech support of their agencies, as needed) to set up everything that is needed in real time during the exercise – just like they would in real life. This would include all their video, file share, data tracking, etc. That set up is a considerable challenge of running a virtual EOC. If you didn’t want that activity to distract from your exercise, it’s also a great drill. Don’t let it just be tech support personnel, though, as EOC personnel should be expressing their needs.

Remote work environments have helped many organizations overcome challenges associated with the pandemic. Some organizations were better prepared than others to make it happen, but most seem to have achieved effective operational continuity. Hopefully your preparedness programs haven’t stalled out because people feel these activities can’t be done in a virtual environment. We also can’t use the excuse that we’re too busy because of the pandemic to not be preparing. While some niche organizations might still be quite busy, the pandemic response, for most, has become an integrated job duty for the medium term. We can’t let things fall to the wayside or we will never get back on track. The time is now!

I’d love to hear how you are using tech platforms to support preparedness efforts.

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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