Exercising Foundational Skills with Unorthodox Scenarios

Does the scenario of an exercise activity really matter?  Can we use a zombie scenario to exercise evacuation and sheltering?  Can we use a holiday food distribution to the needy to practice our POD (point of distribution) plan?  Do scenarios always have to be realistic or related to our jurisdiction’s hazards?

I’m a foodie.  As such I find myself occasionally watching shows like Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped.  These are fun shows that strike a balance of cooking with game shows, including the cash prize in the end.  The competitors are legitimate cooks, some trained in culinary schools, some successful in their careers and earning the title of ‘chef’.  The competitors are given, on the spot, either a dish to create (Cutthroat Kitchen) or a box full of ingredients which must all be incorporated into a dish (Chopped), using a kitchen and pantry generally unfamiliar to them, within a relatively short amount of time – and make it better than their competitors.  Is competing on these shows anything like running a professional kitchen?  Hell no.  Does it make them better cooks?  From interviews I’ve heard, the answer is yes.

Can we recreate this in emergency management?  Of course we can, and we should.  How would this help emergency managers and other public safety professionals?  Recall that within the exercise design component of the HSEEP process the Core Capabilities to be focused on and the objectives to be tested are selected prior to determining the scenario.  This tells us that the activities to be performed are more important than the scenario in which they will be performed.  In these cooking competitions, the participants must fall back on their foundational skills to be successful.  It’s those foundational skills and the activities which they foster that we evaluate in our exercises.

Certainly a scenario has some importance.  It provides context, allowing the participants to get their head into what they are doing.  A scenario can be different, even a bit silly or fantastical (alien invasion, anyone?), but it still has to correlate to the objectives of the exercise; i.e. there must be a compelling reason to perform mass prophylaxis or to evacuate an area.  That said, the scenario is simply a vehicle to get our participants to perform what we intend to test.  Don’t we always tell our participants to not fight the scenario?  Well if it’s something they’ve never before experienced, they have little ground to stand on.

Another benefit to using an unfamiliar or alternate scenario is getting participants to break from the routine and face unexpected and new challenges.  What if digital communications fail?  What if they have to relocate to an alternate EOC? What if that alternate facility is likewise compromised?  Consider using the scenario to remove a critical resource from use.  How will the participants overcome this new problem?  In Cutthroat Kitchen, participants are faced with unseemly injects to their food preparation, such as replacing all cooking utensils with a Swiss Army knife or only being able to cook using a microwave.  Some of your participants may balk at such occurrences, but emergency management is about managing the unknown, the unfortunate, and the unexpected.

Regardless of the measure of reality we choose to base our exercises on, the scenarios we develop are really another level of fiction to help facilitate exercise participation.  Yes, often times we want to test hazard specific plans (a zombie apocalypse exercise can not replace the need of a hurricane exercise), but if the scenario itself doesn’t matter, consider using something ‘outside the box’.  Routine makes us complacent and complacency is very dangerous in emergency management.  We must always expect the unexpected and continually have the mindset to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker

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