Disaster Exercise Management, Part 3: Information Technologies

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

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.