Disaster Exercise Management, Part 3: Information Technologies

Knowing when and how to use today's measurement technology in your exercise operations

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

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