Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

This post is part of a 10-part series on Managing an Exercise Program. In this series I provide some of my own lessons learned in the program and project management aspects of managing, designing, conducting, and evaluating Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) exercises. Your feedback is appreciated!

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 10: Evaluation and Improvement Planning

Conducting exercise planning conferences is one of my favorite parts of exercise project management (note that in these phases, we transitioned in the previous step from program management to project management – although in the big picture we are still managing our exercise program and the projects within it).

Timothy Riecker

HSEEP Cycle

You will notice that the HSEEP cycle doesn’t provide specific steps for gaining buy-in for your exercise or organizing your planning team.  These are identified in HSEEP Volume II, which you should be using as a reference.  I mentioned getting buy-in for the general concept of your exercise in Part 5 as part of building your business case for obtaining funding.  Obviously securing buy-in is extremely important as you won’t be able to move forward with the exercise initiative without the blessing of not only your executives but those of any partnering agencies or organizations.  Speaking of executives, you will want to ensure that they are provided with regular briefings (either orally or in writing – whichever is most appropriate) throughout the design phase.  It’s important to ensure their continued support, especially as the exercise is fleshed out and the commitment of their agency resources is solidified.

I won’t spend a lot of time discussing the membership of the planning team as I have given plenty of lip service in earlier posts in this series to ensuring that you surround yourself with the right people and make the right connections and partnership with other agencies.  Organization of the planning team is very important, however.  A smaller team rather than a larger one is easier to manage and coordinate – especially for your core team.  I’ve seen great success personally in two tiers of planning teams.  The first is a core team – these are the folks who do most of the work and make most of the decisions – thus they come from the most significantly involved stakeholders.  You want people know exercises and generally have experience in planning them.  The second tier planning team consists of everyone else.  There may be a number of entities who want to participate in the exercise but will have limited participation (such as most individual agencies participating in a table top exercise or in a functional exercise in your EOC).  The input of these agencies is important, as they will provide their own exercise objectives and other ideas, but their planning role is generally limited to their own participation rather than that of multiple agencies.  Not every agency needs to be represented in the planning team directly.  In the even of several fire departments, for example, being represented in a larger-scope exercise, perhaps the department which you expect to have the most participation could represent the interests of the others.  It’s important, however, to not forget that these other agencies are participating.  Many of these folks will need to be guided through the exercise planning process and provided with some assistance to ensure that they meet the deliverables due to you (such as templates for exercise objectives).  You may even want to consider some small seminars on HSEEP, specifically the exercise planning and design process.  Lastly, the individuals themselves should be folks who are not playing in the exercise.  I’m generally not a fan of the ‘trusted agent’ concept, unless you have little choice to do so.

HSEEP recommends an organization similar to an ICS-based model for your planning team.  That is, certain agencies (and their representatives) would be part of ‘command’, others would be part of operations, logistics, safety, public information, planning, etc.  Personally I’m not a fan of using a fairly rigid structure like this for exercise planning.  I find that too often, certain agencies will need to migrate from function to function.  Also, from my experience, the agencies who would be part of ‘command’ are usually also the ‘planning’ group (these agencies are usually the core, or first tier planning team).  That said, it does make sense to keep these functions in mind as they do provide for sound project/event management principles.  Going along with this, some agencies may even provide certain individuals in addition to their primary representatives to assist with some of these functions.  Examples would include information officers to put together media releases about the exercise for the public, or logistics folks to help take care of facility and other support needs, and certainly IT folks to help take care of those needs.  We’ll talk about support and logistical requirements more in Part 8 of this series.

Once you have your team assembled, it’s time to begin meetings.  For the sake of discussion, we’ll use the planning of a large multi-agency multi-jurisdiction functional or full-scale exercise as an example.  An exercise of this scope will necessitate the application of all the concepts available within the HSEEP model and thus provide opportunity for us to include them in this discussion.  I’m not going to cover all the details of the meetings, as these are covered in HSEEP Volume II as well as the toolkit, but I will provide my tips for each based upon experience and best practices.  Be sure to get invites out early to identified agencies and specifically identify the type of person you are looking for.  It should be someone very familiar with agency operations, who can fully represent (within reason) the agency and commit resources, who hopefully knows a bit about exercises and emergency management, and who will not be engaged as a player in the exercise.  They will also need to commit to a number of meetings and conference calls as well as some office work time, and may be asked to work as a simulator, controller, or evaluator during the exercise.   Be mindful of good meeting practices like the use of agendas and facilitation of discussion.  Also, be sure to follow-up with everyone after the meeting.

Note that between all of these meetings and conferences, there will be ongoing communication both with the core planning group as well as the full planning group.  These will include conference calls, e-mail exchanges, and smaller face to face meetings as needed.

Concept and Objectives Meeting

The Concept and Objectives Meeting (C&O meeting) is the first formal meeting of the full exercise planning team.  Prior to this meeting, you may pull together the core planning group to establish a planning timeline as well as prepare a presentation of the general concept of the exercise – remember, this is the first time that many of the folks in the meeting will have heard of this exercise.

HSEEP Volume II provides agenda items for this meeting.  Generally, you are providing an overview of the initial exercise concept to the group, gathering ideas on this and reaching consensus.  Volume II indicates that consensus should also be reached on objectives.  While I think some of the broader objectives can be agreed upon at this meeting, I don’t think it will be possible for objectives from all participating agencies to be obtained with a large planning group.  Take the opportunity, however, to discuss what you are looking for, provide sample objectives, and guidance on how to write exercise objectives.  Set a deadline for participants to get these back to you.  A few days should be reasonable.  Lastly, at the C&O meeting, the group may identify other agencies who might be interested in participating.  These agencies should be approached soon after this meeting and invited to the Initial Planning Conference.

Initial Planning Conference

The Initial Planning Conference (IPC) is certainly where exercise participants and objectives should be settled.  You really want to minimize changes after this meeting as the impact they can have on exercise planning and design will be amplified.  The IPC is where the foundational concepts of the exercise will be fleshed out, including venues, duration, political sensitivities, the scenario, and other details.  This meeting largely consists of presentations by the core planners and discussion and consensus by the larger group.  It’s important to get these details solidified with every participant, as stragglers can cause a great delay in progress.  Read-ahead materials are important for all these meetings.  Certain assignments will be given to people and agencies to secure resources and to identify specific roles, including the leadership for exercise control, evaluation, simcell, and others that may be needed – as well as the documentation that goes with them, such as an evaluation plan.  As needs are identified, they should be logged and assigned.  Here’s where you engage participants in starting to address logistical and support needs.

Mid-term Planning Conference

MPCs are usually only used during larger, more complex exercises.  Don’t let that fool you, though – there is probably not only a need to meet, but a lot of work to get done as well.  Schedule it ahead of time, but cancel if you don’t need it.  Since it’s optional, there is really no specific guidance, other than ensuring to go into it with defined purpose, an agenda, read-ahead materials (such as drafts of exercise documentation), etc.  As HSEEP Volume II mentions, it’s usually a working meeting designed to get pen to paper and hammer out details.  Volume II also suggests that this is a good opportunity to walk through exercise venues to make sure they are suitable and to discuss layout and support needs.  This is also a good time to lock down the location, set up, and support needs of a simcell and to identify simulators.

Master Scenario Events List (MSEL) Conference

The focus of the MSEL conference is the development of the MSEL.  The Master Scenario Events List is the detailed timeline of the exercise, identifying everything from the start and end times to detailing every inject and expected player action.  While the writing of the MSEL (mostly injects) is often times work that falls to the core planning group (and often times consultants), the MSEL conference is used to pull participating agencies together to draft injects for their agency or function.  Here is where they bring their objectives to life, providing the outlines for injects (which will likely be refined later by the core planning group) to drive play for their agency to accomplish the objectives of their participation in the exercise.  The MSEL conference is really a workshop.  You can break out like-agencies into table groups where they can brainstorm and outline injects, as well as identify any issues to be aware of.  The best way of doing this is to assign a facilitator (usually a member of the core planning group) to each table to get them motivated, keep them on task, and to document progress.  Pay special attention to the outcomes as they may cause need to alter earlier preparations such as venue needs.  More on the MSEL in Part 7 of this series.

Final Planning Conference

The Final Planning Conference (FPC) is just that – final!  This is an informative meeting where everything is reviewed and agreed upon to be finalized.  Any outlying issues must be resolved here.  Participants should have reviewed all documents ahead of time so they can ask questions and provide their approval.  This conference should take care of any last-minute issues.

What have you learned from your experienced with exercise planning meetings?  I’d like to hear about your experiences and ideas!

Look out for Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Developing Exercise Documentation.

 

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