Disaster Exercise Management, Part 2: Leading Practices

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

Avoid Down-Time Using Supplemental Activities

For large-scale exercises involving a diverse group of participants (multiple departments, companies, agencies, functional groups, etc.) there are bound to be time periods in which one or more groups are idle while waiting on completion of activities by others. Case in point would be incident commanders who wait while a HAZMAT team cleans up a tanker truck spill. Indeed there are many other examples. Such idle periods usually offer little or no training benefit. A challenge then for the exercise director is to fill in these periods with activities having real training value. Of course, another option is to let the idle participants engage in their regular duties, but this is not always a viable option.

Such "fill in" training activities can be quite varied, and even unrelated to the exercise disaster. For example, HAZMAT "clean up" teams could be given a 1-hour training course on hazmat procedures and use of new operations support software while they wait on the search and rescue phase of the exercise to finish. A key to spotting such opportunities is a detailed time line of activities that identifies participants who will be idle at various points in the exercise.

Make Performance Measurement a Centerpiece of the Exercise

In a prior article, the topic of performance measurements was covered at length (Performance Measurement for Disaster Exercises, by W.F. Comtois, March 2005). As noted in the referenced article, performance measurements are on the critical path to providing actionable feedback and valuable lessons to the exercise participants. First and foremost, the objectives of the exercise must be served by the performance measurements, which no doubt will include providing valuable feedback to participants. An exercise without a good set of performance measures will deprive its participants of the best possible learning experience and on-lookers of an unambiguous assessment of preparedness.

Utilize Innovative Observation Techniques

Observers can play a central role in not just collecting data for performance evaluation but also in real-time monitoring of the exercise's progress. Without observers, it might not be possible to measure performance or provide substantive feedback to participants. And with respect to real-time monitoring of the exercise, the observers can be the "eyes and ears" of the exercise director or command center.

When deciding what exactly to observe, be forewarned of the temptation to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Such overly zealous observation plans can quickly flood the exercise director and participants with a sea of hard-to-decipher data. Instead, observation specifications should be backed out of what performance measurements will be used and what aspects of the exercise need to be monitored in real-time and recorded for future reference. Selection of the human observer(s) should be done in accordance with these requirements and with proper care to ensure adequate skills for the observation tasks at hand.

Technology can be a powerful tool for the observer. In situations where the human observer is stationed in the field, mobile computing devices with "smart" recording tools can guide them through the observation recording process and capture these observations in standardized electronic forms. Such observation aids can reduce human error, ensure consistent comparisons across observation stations, and directly store observations in standardized electronic forms that are compliant with governmental requirements. And in some cases, human observers might be replaced with remote recording devices such as webcams.

Reuse and Repeat

An important step in running exercises more frequently and efficiently is to reuse various elements of prior exercises. Reuse cuts down on work and cost of future exercises, and in turn can reduce time to prepare for an exercise. Items to reuse can be rather varied - for example, observation procedures, equipment and facilities are just a few. The antithesis of reuse is "build it from the ground up each time".