Build a Smart Exercise and Respond to the Unexpected

A few days ago I caught a documentary on NatGeo called Inside: 21st Century Warship. The documentary was produced in 2013 and told of the cutting-edge design of the USS Freedom and USS Independence. One segment of the documentary captured an exercise the USS Freedom engaged in, with the objective of testing the ship’s firepower to destroy several remote-controlled fast attack boats in open seas. The Captain, well experienced in my opinion, was able to neutralize the boats through the massive wake created by the ship’s sizeable turbines. EndEx.

The lead controller was clearly upset with this. The objective of the exercise, after all, was to test the ship’s guns, which were not fired in this exercise. The controller vented his frustration with the Captain, needing to reemphasize the parameters of the exercise.

Who was at fault in this? Was the objective of the exercise communicated to the Captain? That wasn’t made clear in the documentary. If it was, perhaps it wasn’t made clear that use of the ship’s guns was the only means by which the Captain could engage the attacking boats. I do applaud the Captain’s initial defensive methods, which is perhaps what he was trained to do, though that obviously circumvented the intent of the exercise. Either way, there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding as to the intent and parameters of the exercise.

While this is a military example, the portability to emergency management and homeland security is pretty direct. How do we mitigate against this type of miscommunication or misunderstanding? It starts with a well-defined concept and objectives for our exercise. Those build the foundation from which the rest of the exercise is constructed. Part of exercise design is anticipating how players may respond to the information they are provided and the situations which they will face. This constant analysis helps us to ensure a well-designed exercise, especially in regard to reducing any and all ambiguity, particularly as information relates to the objectives of the exercise and the ‘rules of the game’. It helps us to craft clear injects and even contingency injects in the event players don’t respond the way in which we expect them. Finally, when it comes to deployment of the exercise, an effective player briefing is very important.

Can things still go wrong? Sure they can. That’s why it helps to have a well experienced Exercise Director and/or Lead Controller, and a proficient SimCell Manager (if you are using a SimCell). They can help get the exercise out of a rut. I’ve seen and performed all manner of intervention… most often it’s some ad-hoc development of contingency injects to help steer them down the right path. I’ve also engaged chief executives, who sometimes weren’t expected to participate in the exercise, to make a call, functioning in their own capacity but working for me as an actor, with clear direction to poke, prod, inquire, or otherwise re-direct to get players back into my sandbox. If necessary, it’s a conversation directly with the ‘leader’ of the players, pulling them out of the exercise for a moment and letting them know what they can or can’t be doing. If you have to call a time out and reset something, do it, but do it quickly.

It may be cliché but expect the unexpected. Sometimes players will do something you don’t anticipate. While this may be the circumstance, however, it could very well be on you. Either you didn’t communicate the rules or communicate them well enough. Ensure understanding in this communication. Certainly, ensure that during the exercise, there is good communication between controllers and the SimCell to identify when, if, and how players might be straying a bit. If it’s caught early enough, it will usually just take a gentle nudge to get them back on track. It’s important to recognize and address it as soon as possible – otherwise you will quickly lose your exercise, wasting time and money, and certainly frustrating the players.

Have you had an exercise go off the rails? How did you correct it?

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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