Disaster Exercise Management, Part 2: Leading Practices

March 11, 2005
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.

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".

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 [email protected].

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

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