Disaster Exercise Management, Part 2: Leading Practices

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

Repeatability pertains to the ability to rerun a disaster exercise in an identical or similar fashion. By repeating exercises or elements thereof, meaningful assessments of progress can be made with respect to proficiency and preparedness, whereas variations from exercise to exercise can stand in the way of generating consistent measures of progress. For example, it would be hard to say much about a security team's improvement in responsiveness based on the comparison of a grounds perimeter breach to an employee theft.

Reuse of tangible and informational assets is an important part of repeatability. Reusing not just facilities but also disaster event profiles, roles and responsibility maps, measurement and observation procedures, and after-action reports are a few means of cutting down on effort and improving consistency in successive exercises. Other factors contribute to repeatability as well - for instance, having the same exercise management team each time, and applying a continuous improvement program whereby efforts are made to make each run more consistent with the last.

Proactively Manage Levels of Difficulty

The skill and proficiency levels required to successfully participate in an exercise are often fixed along with the disaster scenario. In the default case, when the exercise is repeated, difficulty levels remain unchanged. For repeat exercises that are testing proficiency progress, the ability to alter difficulty levels over time, and for different participants may be useful. Similarly, if during the exercise certain participants are completing their duties more rapidly than others, difficulty could be selectively increased for the more proficient participants.

Various techniques can be used for modulating difficulty levels. One such technique is injection of surprise events into the exercise. For example, the exercise director, relying on feedback from one of the in-field observers, might in the midst of the exercise decide to shut down one of four decontamination stations. In so doing, the exercise director could simulate a suicide bomber attack, and in turn place greater burden on the remaining three stations.


Running exercises in today's world calls for more efficient execution and obtaining more training value from each experience. An important benefit of greater exercise efficiency is the ability to run more frequent exercises and for a lower cost. At the same time, maximizing the training experience can lead to more rapid closure of performance gaps and ultimately higher levels of preparedness. The practices presented herein offer a means of making exercises better in both regards.

Regardless of one's ambitions for achieving more efficient exercises and greater training benefit, the practices outlined herein should not be applied in a manner that compromises the primary objectives of the exercise or conflicts with budgetary or other constraints. Yet, clever application of these practices can potentially lead to the best of both worlds - fulfillment of baseline objectives and constraints, while getting more training value per dollar than before.

In a future article, the use of leading information technologies in exercise management will be covered in depth. Most notably, it will be shown how such technologies can be used to reap further efficiencies and achieve greater payback on disaster exercises.

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 twenty 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 via email at william.comtois@varicominc.com.

(c) 2005 Varicom Inc., All rights reserved.