Disaster Exercise Management, Part 3: Information Technologies

When applied correctly, information technologies can improve the overall quality of a disaster exercise. Those improvements especially can be seen in the quality of the learning experience; with today's technologies, participants can be given more comprehensive and precise feedback on their performance. Further benefits reside in the potential for efficiencies by engaging participants remotely and thereby lowering travel costs, reducing the volume of otherwise manual record keeping tasks, establishing a paperless environment, and so on.

Whether a particular information technology (IT) is appropriate for an exercise, however, is not determined by benefits alone. Numerous factors must be brought into the selection process. For instance, the exercise director must consider factors like ease of use, compatibility with other technologies, as well as the cost to not only implement but operate and maintain over time.

As with virtually any "technology investment" decision, careful attention needs to be given to a variety of factors when contemplating IT for a disaster exercises. This third in a series of articles on managing disaster exercises addresses ways in which off-the-shelf information technologies can be put to valuable use in disaster exercises and noteworthy factors to weigh when contemplating the use of IT in an exercise.

Real-Time Monitoring

Remotely monitoring an exercise in real-time can be of great benefit to the exercise director, observers and even participants. CCTV surveillance cameras or WIFI-connected webcams are perhaps the first technologies that come to mind when thinking of remote monitoring. Yet there exists a variety of other powerful monitoring technologies that may have a valuable role in the exercise.

For instance, other variables that may justify real-time monitoring are:

  • Location and movement of assets including equipment, supplies and people
  • Time intervals to achieve certain milestones in the exercise or other measures of progress.
  • Ambient conditions like temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and barometric pressure

Asset tracking functions can often be achieved with a barcode tagging and reading process. A fundamental challenge of barcode-tracking processes, however, is ensuring that the assets' tags will be recorded (or equivalently, swiped with a barcode reading device) whenever their location or disposition changes. For this reason, extra care must be given to training users, assigning asset custodial responsibilities and otherwise controlling the process of asset tracking.

A popular asset tracking technology these days is the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) device. While RFID offers the potential benefit of low-cost, automated "reading" of an asset's tag, great caution should be exercised when considering this option for disaster exercises as it remains a relatively young technology with known challenges.

Real-time monitoring can also be achieved via human observers assisted by mobile computing technologies -- case in point, electronic forms on a tablet PC with wireless connectivity to the exercise command center or other mobile computing devices. As the observer makes entries on the forms using the tablet's pen (see an example by clicking here) the information can be promptly transmitted to the command center for near-real-time assessment of progress. A similar process can be realized with digital cameras and other devices connected to the mobile PC.

For real-time monitoring, connectivity between the remote device and the command center is of critical importance. If, for example, WIFI is the preferred transmission method, then acceptable signal strength and range of the devices should be verified before making such a commitment. If on the other hand, wire-line connectivity is contemplated, then the installation time, cost and rights of way should be well accounted for before making a commitment to deploy the monitoring devices.

Observation Tools

As mentioned above, in the case of on-site observations mobile computers can be a powerful platform for assisting the observation process. In addition to hosting various input devices (tablet PC pen, digital camera, microphone, etc.), the mobile computer can run observer support software that guides the observer through her tasks, organizes and stores observations, and transmits the results to a central database for storage and review by others. And, when the observer's computer is tied into a central exercise management database, the forms can be pre-populated with supporting information like participants' names, skill levels, activities that the participants are expected to perform, equipment types being used, diagrams of the work site, and even the difficulty level of the activities required. The information entered by the observer would eventually be retrieved from the exercise database for use in the after-action analysis and debriefing sessions.

Simulation Technologies

The word simulation carries with it a wide range of meanings, depending on who you talk to. For the purposes of this article, the type of simulation technologies discussed are those which address command, communication, and collaboration aspects of a disaster by means of an interactive, multi-user computer program. All other flavors of simulators, such as those which predict environmental impact or which simulate the operation of a piece of equipment, are outside of this article's scope.

Simulations can be used in the planning stage as an exercise "rehearsal" tool. The benefits of a pre-exercise simulation can be greatest when the exercise requires (1) otherwise independent organizations to coordinate and (2) people to incur significant travel costs to participate in the exercise. Running pre-exercise simulations in this situation allows participants to iron out how they'll coordinate and communicate with others during the actual exercise. In so doing, the risk of ineffective coordination and collaboration during the actual exercise can therefore be mitigated. What's more, by using a technology that allows remote participation, the rehearsal simulation can be carried out before the participants have departed to the exercise site.

A more central use of simulation technology is to base the entire exercise on the simulation. Multiple users interact through the simulation program with various media and communications -- sound, text, images, video and even computer generated 3-D imagery. Each user can be given a specific user profile which, among other things, defines their "view" of the simulated disaster as well as what resources and participants can be interacted with. Depending on the requirements of the exercise, incumbent communication systems (e.g., radios, cell phones, pagers, etc.) and other operations support tools (e.g., computer-aided dispatch software) may be used in conjunction with the simulation program.

Two noteworthy advantages of running the exercise in a simulation environment are automatic recording and injections. If proper functionality exists, recording of actions, decisions and even communications can be made directly through the simulation program. Association of such recordings with user identity, time, and events can be done automatically, and stored in the simulation's database for easy post-mortem analysis, playback and structured report generation.

Injections are events or notifications communicated to participants according to a pre-defined schedule or on an impromptu basis. Through impromptu injections, the exercise director is afforded a higher degree of real-time control over the exercise. For instance, if, as the exercise proceeds the exercise director feels that the participants are finding the scenario to be unchallenging, she may inject surprise events to raise the difficulty level.

While the virtues of simulation-based disaster exercises are quite alluring, the decision to base an entire exercise on such technology is not to be taken lightly. A closer look at the factors to consider when contemplating a simulation-based exercise can be found under separate cover (Selecting Simulation Technologies for Disaster Exercises).

Exercise Management Software

Exercise management support software can serve as a central point for monitoring, recording and analyzing the exercise. Functions that such a tool can provide may include the following:

  • Real-time monitoring of the exercise
  • Tracking of assets including equipment, supplies and people
  • Documentation of participants, their roles, responsibilities, skills/functions and affiliation
  • Review of exercise timelines and event interdependencies
  • Storage and organization of data recorded during the exercise
  • Playback and reporting of recordings and results.

An essential piece of the exercise management support system is the database in which information is stored and managed over the entire life cycle of the exercise. The user interface, another important piece, in some cases can allow graphical views of timelines, organization structures, exercise venue and other information.

The benefit of such a solution will continue well after the exercise is over. For instance, various after action analysis results, including performance measurements, can be stored in the exercise management support database and logically linked to the participants and tasks to which they apply. Segments of the exercise can then be retrieved or replayed side-by-side with corresponding measurements and post-mortem analysis. And for dissemination purposes, archived versions of the database can be made accessible to others through a secure point of entry into the exercise management support software.

Performance Measurement and Reporting

Applicability of technologies to recording, analysis and presentation of performance measurements will, in part, depend on what type of measurements are involved. For example, a quantitative measure such as "percent of victims decontaminated on the first pass through a decontamination chamber" could utilize a barcode tracking system to count the movement of victims through the decontamination chamber.

Recording of qualitative measurements (e.g., rating a group's intra-group collaboration on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is worst and 5 is best) can be aided by electronic forms with pre-defined rating values or other controls that prevent invalid inputs. Even unstructured recording of information, such as a hand sketch of a rescue scene, now can be done paperlessly using pen-based computing capabilities such as that offered on contemporary tablet PCs.

Analysis tasks such as tabulation of ratings, calculation of averages and totals, as well as the deriving of various measures (e.g., "7 of the 12 HAZMAT crews failed to shut off the feeder valve before entering the unit") will often lend themselves to automated calculation with computer programs and/or database queries. Structured databases and spreadsheets can be powerful tools in this capacity.

Presentation tools can include document imaging software, tabular report generators as well as multi-media players. The ability to present results remotely, i.e., over the web, can offer efficiencies and expand reach to those who did not participate in or witness the exercise. Webcast technologies are powerful tools for holding after-action sessions when participants are not co-located.

Conclusion

Knowing what type of IT to use in a disaster exercise often is not a black and white decision process. In making this choice, exercise directors can ask the following questions:

  • Will the technology improve the learning experience?
  • Are there worthwhile savings in time or costs to be realized?
  • Can miscommunications and other errors be reduced?
  • Would the technology be reusable in subsequent exercises?

Once a particular technology is identified as a potential fit for the exercise, other factors should also be considered before the final selections are made. For instance, noteworthy points to evaluate the technology against are:

  • Compatibility with existing technologies (e.g., radio systems)
  • Ease of use and maintenance
  • Resources and costs to setup and operate
  • Resilience for the environment (e.g., temperature, vibration, moisture).

When wisely selected and matched to the needs and constraints of your exercise, information technology can lead to a more fulfilling training experience for all involved. With ongoing improvements in the price-to-performance ratios for many off-the-shelf technologies the future for information technology in disaster exercises looks rather promising.

About the author: William Comtois is managing director of Varicom, Inc., a consultancy and software company specializing in homeland defense and service logistics. He has over 20 years of experience in applying leading technologies and innovative process management practices to business and defense solutions. Over the past fourteen years, his work has focused on large service companies where he has lead numerous performance improvement, training and process management initiatives that have resulted in major breakthroughs in financial performance, service levels and disaster preparedness. He can be reached by phone at (212) 561-5782 or email at william.comtois@varicominc.com.

(c) Varicom, Inc.

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