Disaster Exercise Management, Part 2: Leading Practices

Using leading practices to maximize the training benefit and preparedness opportunity of your next emergency exercise


Running a training exercise can be a costly, time-consuming undertaking. Often, a simplistic but common measure of success in this regard is staying under or on budget. But meeting budgetary constraints is rarely a good indicator of getting the most training value per dollar spent. Special attention must also be directed to utilizing resources in the most efficient manner possible and continually striving to maximize the learning experience.

This second in a series of articles on disaster exercise management covers some leading practices and pitfalls to avoid when conducting a disaster training exercise. Application of these practices can allow more efficient, cost effective exercises and elevate the quality of the training experience. Achieving a more efficient exercise management process can in turn enable more frequent running of exercises and more complex exercises, i.e. a more diverse group of participants and more elaborate disaster scenarios. Related to more efficient exercises is the shortening of lead times. Running exercises on shorter notice can better meet a rapidly evolving set of threats and risks. Thus, the practices presented below can move your organization toward a just-in-time training capability.

Before delving into the assortment of leading practices, the reader is well advised to have command of the foundational tools of exercise management. In addition, this article presumes that essential pieces such as project plans, budgets, exercise objectives, participation agreements, media relations plans, disaster scenario specifications and others will be in sound order before attempting to apply any of the practices set forth below.

Apply "Distance" Exercise Principles

In the case of large-scale exercises, it is quite likely that at least some of the participants will be traveling to the exercise epicenter for "on site" involvement. While there are many conceivable cases where physical location at the exercise site is essential, opportunities for remote participation should be sought as this may save travel costs and reduce non-productive time. Of course, if the exercise participants normally are located together, this point becomes moot. But when participants are otherwise far apart and the number of participants is relatively large, the potential savings may be significant. Important factors to consider are (1) will decentralized participation be detrimental to exercise realism and learning?, (2) is there sufficient communications and information technology to allow a satisfactory "distance" experience?, and (3) how might the cost and time savings be put to other good uses, e.g., funding other exercises?.

Often the pivotal factor in deciding whether or not to engage participants from afar is technology. In particular, the ability to "deliver" the exercise to remote participants with multi-media (e.g., video, sound, etc.) and in real-time is often necessary to preserve sufficient realism. Additionally, use of technology that allows the remote participants to interact with other participants as well as record their actions, decisions and communications can be instrumental in preparing valuable after-action feedback for remote participants.

Compress Time Scales

The time period over which a disaster would naturally play out may vary widely. A suicide bombing may come and go in a matter of minutes or hours, while a pandemic may develop over weeks or perhaps even months. For disasters with longer natural life cycles, the time and cost to run an exercise under natural time scales can be prohibitive. Especially for longer-lasting disasters, exercise time scales often need to be shortened, or equivalently, the cadence of events needs to be accelerated. By doing so, idle (i.e., non-productive) time and cost of participating resources (humans, equipment and facilities) can be reduced. What's more, in many cases it is likely that this "time compression" can be done without having a detrimental effect on the quality of training.

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