Disaster 101: How to Plan and Run a Disaster Exercise (Part 2)

Part 2: The role of the exercise director, plus creating surprise scenarios and using what you learned to improve


[Editor's Note: In the first part of this Disaster 101 tutorial on planning and running your emergency training scenario (be that a security emergency or a natural disaster), William Comtois discussed the pre-exercise preliminaries -- planning, communications, and measurement strategies. In Part 2, he gets down to the nuts-and-bolts of running these exercises and getting the most out of the after-action analysis.]

Running the Exercise

Once your exercise is underway, keeping things on track falls into the hands of the exercise director. Arguably the most important position while the exercise is running, the exercise director should have direct oversight of the participants' activities as well as oversight of the work being done behind the scenes by support resources.

A chain of command should be in place to ensure that issues and vital information about the exercise promptly flow to the exercise director. As issues arise (it's only a matter of time - every exercise will have its share of challenges) the exercise director should be ready and able to act decisively and wisely. Absent such a role, the exercise will invariably be at risk of running astray and missing the objectives behind the exercise's conception.

The exercise director need not be the only role borne by the designee. For instance, in the case of a discussion-based exercise, the facilitator might appropriately serve as the exercise director. Large operations-based exercises are more likely to call for a dedicated exercise director.

One noteworthy function that the exercise director may also perform is the delivery of injections. An injection is a simulated event or information that is presented to one or more of the participants with the intention of adding an element of surprise. Examples would be: "smoke has been detected in the back-up power room", "the nightly news team has just arrived and is demanding an interview with the CEO", "employees on the 12th floor are reporting symptoms of nausea and dizziness", and countless others. Injections may be delivered according to a schedule defined before the exercise commences or on an ad hoc basis at the exercise director's discretion. Injections may be used to initiate the exercise by informing the participants that the first event in the scenario has occurred; Injections can also be used after the exercise has started to steer the course of events in a certain direction or vary the level of difficulty in real time.

In the case of exercises that extend beyond a single room, another important role during the exercise will be that of the observer. Depending on the size and geographic dispersion of the exercise, multiple observers may be needed. As a general rule, an observer should be present at each location where participants are stationed and the actions or decisions performed at that location warrant recording and evaluation by someone other than the participant(s). While such coverage with human observers may be prohibitive, various electronic recording and information technologies might offer a suitable alternative (for more details on technologies for observers, see the SecurityInfoWatch.com article Disaster Exercise Management, Part 3 of 3, Information Technologies).

In many cases the observer may be required to perform not only recording of participant activities but also real-time evaluation. Examples would be:

(1) comparing tasks performed against a checklist of necessary tasks and
(2) rating the participants' skills according to a standardized rating scale.

It is important to ensure that the observer's skills are commensurate with the recording and evaluative tasks required of them. Regardless of observer skill requirements, well before the exercise starts the observers should be identified and assigned to observation stations, given instructions for the observations they will be required to make, and told to whom they should submit their recorded material once the exercise is over.

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