Preparedness Exercises – The Building Block Concept Can Be Misleading

If you’ve been doing emergency management and homeland security exercises for even a little while, you are probably familiar with this graphic.  It’s included in a great many exercise training courses and other materials that talk about the different types of exercises out there.  This graphic looks correct at first glance.  It seems to make sense.  Intuitively, we assume that full-scale exercises are the most complex exercise type and that they test capabilities to the greatest extent.  When we put more thought into that, though, we realize that it can be wrong.

I’m happy to note that the most recent document on the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) (April 2013) does NOT include this graphic.  They include a couple of paragraphs on using a ‘progressive approach’ to a multi-year exercise program, recommending that “each successive exercise building upon the previous one until mastery is achieved” is the path forward.  While I’m not too crazy about this statement, either, it’s not as misleading as the legacy ‘building block’ graphic.

Here’s the problem with the graphic – It assumes too much.  While in some instances this graphic can be correct, it shouldn’t be regarded as even occasional guidance.  I’ve witnessed, managed, designed, evaluated, or otherwise participated in a number of workshops, tabletops, drill, and functional exercises that are far more complex than some full-scale exercises I’ve likewise been involved in.  Similarly, I can attest to some ‘lower level’ exercises testing capabilities to a greater extent than the ‘higher level’ exercises.  The hierarchal structure is simply misleading.  The problem this can create is people being dismissive of the relevance, necessity, and value of conducting exercises other than functional and full-scale.

Making a training comparison, exercise types don’t really stick to a scaled taxonomy.  (Check out this article for a small introduction to Bloom’s Taxonomy which is used in instructional design.) While we can state that an awareness level course is more about knowing and understanding, and an operations-level course is more about applying, we can’t say the same for exercises as a spectrum generalization.  Consider that seminars are certainly geared toward orienting people with information, while workshops, on the other hand, require creation of a product, by definition.  Tabletop exercises can (and should) be incredibly in-depth, analyzing plans and policy, while drills are more about application.

So what exercise type should you choose?  It goes back to the foundations of exercise design – consider your objectives, then consider what exercise type best fits what was identified that you want to accomplish.  Reflecting, now, back on the progressive approach mentioned in the HSEEP document, it’s true that you probably don’t want to jump into a full-scale right away.  That has less to do with the perceived complexity of the exercise and more to do with how plans are properly tested – which is the main reason why we exercise.  First, we need to talk through aspects of our plans, policies, and procedures.  We need to make sure that our foundational assumptions are sound and that broader decisions and actions are in line with the documents created.  This is typically the reasoning behind conducting a table top exercise before any type of operations-based exercise.  Once we have established that the foundational premise and supporting policies of the plan is sound, then it can make sense to progress to a selection of operations-based exercises to test various tactile aspects of the plan and associated procedures.

That said, some procedures are so tactile that really the only way to test them is through an operations-based exercise.  Perhaps they are first built in a workshop-type of environment, then go straight to a drill for testing.  That might be all that’s needed.  Yes, they could be further integrated into a functional or full-scale later, if you choose to integrate them into other activities.

The bottom line here is that while the building-block approach to exercises makes sense at a glance, it is really quite more complex than the graphic eludes to.  Yes, it still has some relevance, but it should not be viewed as the rule.  Just as in training and emergency response, objectives drive everything in exercises.

© 2017 – Timothy M Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

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In a POETE State of Mind

One of the searches that has most often brought people to my blog over the last couple of years has been POETE.  In case you forgot, POETE stands for Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising.  If you conduct an internet search for POETE, there are very few relevant results.  Along with a few of my blog posts, there are a couple of articles published by others, and a few FEMA documents that include obscure references to POETE.  Sadly, there is nothing available that provides (official) guidance, much less doctrine.

Why is it that such a great tool has so few tangible references?  Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that.  I hope that will soon change.

POETE was most widely indoctrinated several years ago as an analysis step within the State Preparedness Reports (SPRs), which are annual submissions completed by every state, UASI (Urban Area Security Initiative-funded program), and territory.  Note: The SPR templates and guidance are generally not publicly posted, as they are sent directly to the points of contact for each jurisdiction – thus they generally don’t come up in internet search results.

The SPR is a step beyond the THIRA (Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Analysis), which is a very in-depth hazard analysis.  The SPR examines each jurisdiction’s level of preparedness for hazards, referencing the 32 Core Capabilities.  Each Core Capability is then analyzed through the lens of POETE.

As a conceptual example, let’s use the Operational Communications Core Capability.  The POETE analysis will examine the jurisdiction’s preparedness by examining:

  • Planning (are plans adequate? Have they been tested?  What improvements need to be made?);
  • Organizing (are there organizational barriers to success? What human operational communications resources are available?  Are there gaps?  Have teams been exercised? What improvements need to be made?);
  • Equipment (does the jurisdiction have equipment necessary for operational communications? What needs are there relative to the resource management cycle?);
  • Training (what training has been provided? What training gaps exist?  When/how will they be addressed?);
  • Exercises (what exercises have been conducted that include the operational communications Core Capability? What were the findings of the AAR/IPs?  What future exercises are scheduled that include this Core Capability?).

Along with answering a few questions on each element, jurisdictions are asked to rate their status for each POETE element for each Core Capability.  If they look at their reports submitted historically, they can see the measure of progress (or lack thereof) with each.  They also have a tracking of identified action items to help them improve their measure of preparedness.

While this analysis can be quite tedious, it’s extremely insightful and informative.  Often, stakeholders have conceptual ideas about the state of preparedness for each Core Capability, but absent conducting this type of in-depth analysis, they rarely see the details, much less have them written down.  Documenting these helps with recognition, awareness, tasking, tracking, and accountability.  It’s a valuable activity that I would encourage all jurisdictions and organizations to conduct.

What else can POETE be applied to?  In the past few years, POETE is being included in DHS preparedness grants.  They often want applicants to identify key tasks within the POETE structure, and awardees to chart progress along the same lines.

I’ve advocated in the past to use the POETE structure in improvement plans, which are a step beyond after action reports from exercises, events, and even incidents.  Having key activities identified across each POETE element for the Core Capabilities analyzed is extremely helpful, and ensures that issues are being identified comprehensively.

Using the POETE concept across all preparedness efforts helps to tie them together.  By documenting each element for each Core Capability, you will have full visibility and reference to your current status and what needs to be improved upon.  It helps drive accountability, a comprehensive approach, and reduces duplication of efforts – especially in larger organizations.  While implementing such a program will take some investment up front to begin to identify, organize, and chart progress and establish an organizational system to do so, I feel it’s an investment that will pay off.

I’m hopeful that the use of POETE continues to see adoption across all of emergency management and homeland security, and that it is further reinforced as a standard through DHS, FEMA, NFPA, and other organizations which hold sway for settings standards and/or requirements.

How does your organization, agency, or jurisdiction use POETE?

© 2017 – Timothy M Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Incident Evaluation

I’ve written at length about the importance of quality evaluation of exercises.  Essentially, if we don’t evaluate exercises, and do it well, the benefits of the exercises are quite limited.  Generally, we don’t see a benefit to incidents.  By their very nature, incidents threaten and impact life, property, and environment – things we don’t view as being beneficial.  However, benefits are often a product of opportunity; and we absolutely should take the opportunity to evaluate our responses.

Many incidents do get evaluated, but through research after the fact.  We retrace our steps, review incident documents (such as incident action plans), interview personnel, and examine dispatch logs.  These efforts usually paint a decent picture of intent and result (things that are often different), but often miss the delta – the difference between the two – as well as other nuances.  When we evaluate an exercise, we do so in real time.  Th evaluation effort is best done with preparation.  Our evaluation plans, methodologies, and personnel are identified in the design phase of the exercise.  Just as we develop emergency operations plans and train personnel to respond, we can develop incident evaluation plans and train personnel to evaluate incident responses.

Understandably, a hurdle we might have is the availability of personnel to dedicate solely to evaluation, especially on larger incidents – but don’t be afraid of asking for mutual aid just to support incident evaluation (just be sure to include them in your preparedness efforts).  Just as regional exercise teams should be developed to provide cooperative efforts in exercise design, conduct, and evaluation; incident evaluation teams should be developed regionally.  To me, it makes sense for many of these personnel to be the same, as they are already familiar with how to evaluate and write up evaluations.

In exercises, we often use Exercise Evaluation Guides (EEGs) to help focus our evaluation efforts.  These are developed based upon identified Core Capabilities and objectives, which are determined early in the exercise design process.  While we don’t know the specific objectives we might use in an incident, we can identify these in general, based upon past experiences and our preparedness efforts for future incidents.  Similarly, our emergency planning efforts should be based around certain Core Capabilities, which can help inform our incident evaluation preparedness efforts.  Job aids similar to EEGs, let’s call them incident evaluation guides (IAGs), can be drafted to prepare for incident evaluation, with adjustments made as necessary when an incident occurs.

Evaluating an incident, in practice, is rather similar to how we would evaluate an exercise, which is why the training for these activities is relatively portable.  Evaluation efforts should avoid evaluating individuals, instead focusing on the evaluation of functions and processes.  Don’t reinvent the wheel – evaluate based upon documented (hopefully!) plans and procedures and use the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) standards to guide your process. Incident evaluation must be managed to ensure that evaluation gaps are minimized and that evaluation progresses as it should.  Observations should be recorded and, just as we would for an exercise, prepared for and eventually recorded in an after action report (AAR).

I favor honest after action reports.  I’ve seen plenty of after action reports pull punches, not wanting the document to reflect poorly on people.  Candidly, this is bullshit.  I’ve also heard many legal councils advise against the publication of an after action report at all. Similarly, this is bullshit.  If our actions and the need to sustain or improve certain actions or preparations is not properly recorded, necessary changes are much less likely to happen.  If an AAR isn’t developed, a corrective action plan certainly won’t be – which gives us no trackable means of managing our improvements and disavows our intent to do so.

As a profession, public safety must always strive to improve.  We have plenty of opportunity to assess our performance, not just through exercises, which are valuable, but also through the rigors of incident responses.  Prepare for incident evaluation and identify triggers in your emergency plans for when evaluation will be employed, how, and who is involved.  Begin evaluation as early as possible in an incident – there are plenty of lessons learned in the early, and often most critical moments of our incident response.  Finally, be sure to document lessons learned in an AAR, which will contribute to your overall continuous improvement strategy.

How does your agency accomplish incident evaluation?  If you don’t, why?

Need help with the evaluation of incidents?  We are happy to help!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

2017 HSEEP Course Information

Emergency Preparedness Solutions is regularly looking for Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) trained personnel to help us design, conduct, and evaluate exercises.  The following training bulletin from FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute provides updated information on the course offerings and application process.  Below the training bulletin is a listing of the webinar-based offerings of HSEEP (K0146).

Training Bulletin

Course:  K/L0146 – Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program

 (HSEEP): Basic Course

Emmitsburg, MD — You are subscribed to EMI News for FEMA. The following information has recently been updated, and is now available on http://training.fema.gov/EMI/

1263 – REVISED – Training Bulletin – K-L0146 – updated – Jan 12, 2017

The K/L0146 HSEEP is an intermediate-level course that provides a comprehensive overview of exercise design along with practical skill development in accordance with the HSEEP Doctrine.  The course uses activities that will give participants an opportunity to interact with many of the templates and other materials that are provided by the National Exercise Division to ensure exercises are conducted in a consistent manner.  Upon completion of this course, participants will gain a better understanding of what constitutes a HSEEP consistent exercise.

Read more in Training Bulletin 1263.

 

Course Start End
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
4/10/2017 4/13/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
5/8/2017 5/11/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
6/5/2017 6/8/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
7/10/2017 7/13/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
8/7/2017 8/10/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
9/18/2017 9/21/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
3/13/2017 3/16/2017
K0146: Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Training Course
(M,T,W,R 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST)
2/6/2017 2/9/2017

 

Incident Action Planning

Hello readers!  It’s been a couple of months since I’ve last posted – along with the holidays, I’ve been fortunate to be busy with some great projects and a bit of travel.  While I’m still busy, I’ve been itching to get back to posting.

Over the past few months, I’ve had an opportunity to look at some different aspects of incident action planning.  Having worked as a Planning Section Chief for numerous state and federally declared disasters, I’ve created Incident Action Plans (IAPs), part and parcel, for a variety of incidents.  Teaching hundreds of course offerings of ICS and EOC management, I’ve also had a lot of opportunity to help others understand and appreciate the value of an IAP.

What is an IAP?

The Incident Action Plan is really the culmination of the planning process.  It documents our expected actions for the next operational period, which, through that planning process, should be ready to be supported through an identified organization and necessary resources.  It begins, foundationally, with an understanding of the situation and objectives built to solve the problems that situation imposes upon us.  IAPs identify some situational information, the incident objectives, and tactics – which specific resource assignments – to accomplish those objectives.  To support the tactics, additional elements are added to the IAP, such as the organizational structure, a medical plan (for responders), a communications plan, and specific safety messages.  Based upon the unique characteristics of each incident, additional material can be added.

The planning process, and thus IAPs, are a standard of practice within NIMS/ICS.

Issues with Teaching the Planning Process

For those coming up through the ranks, as it were, of ICS training, the forms integrated into ICS are often one of the most frustrating aspects.  Responders want to do the hands-on stuff, not fill out forms.  Most areas and systems, however, are able to find the responders who are interested in becoming involved in incident management aspects, and engage them in formal or ad-hoc incident management teams.

Often the only exposure that responders have to IAPs is from the ICS 300 course, where they are able to see some samples and are walked through the planning process and associated forms of the IAP.   Having taught hundreds of these, I know it’s a challenge*.  We inundate course participants with a pile of forms and expect them to leave the class to go out and do great things.  While it might be a reasonable initial exposure, this needs to be followed up on, practices, and reinforced if we expect anyone to be successful, much less use the system.

*note: if you aren’t familiar with my position on the current state of ICS training, here are a few other blog posts to orient you.  In short… ICS Training Sucks!

The planning process can be confusing – who does what?  When?  Based upon what information?  The Planning P is the best visual out there and incident management handbooks (aka Field Operations Guides or FOGs) are references that every IMT member should have in the utility pocket of their 5.11s.  While all based on the same system, I find the United States Coast Guard to have the best handbook out there.  These are great job aids for something we don’t go to work and do every day, no matter how proficient you might think you are.

planning P for Planning

Uses of IAPs

IAPs can be applied to anything we can/should apply the planning process to.  These include incidents, pre-planned events, and exercises.  Planned events and exercises provide a great opportunity to practice the planning process and development of IAPs.  It is certainly something that requires practice to be proficient.  Every member of the Command and General staff, as well as a number of support positions, have an important role to play and responsibilities to contribute to the planning process.  The forms themselves even require some practice to ensure that the right information is obtained.  Large incidents can also require a great deal of tactical planning, which means greater time for that and for documenting the tactics and necessary support.

One aspect that is often forgotten in the heat of battle is that our response should, ideally, be based on our emergency operations plans (EOPs).  These should be a regular reference to the Command and General staff, as they can, at the very least, provide some general guidance.  Good EOPs, and their associated annexes, should provide some detailed guidance on certain aspects of response, which can prevent the IMT from having to re-invent a plan in the midst of chaos.  The direction of EOPs, to the greatest extent possible, should be referenced in the planning process and reflected in the IAPs.  EOPs should serve as the foundation for the planning process – with that in mind, EOPs can be implementation-ready.  More thoughts on emergency plan development here.

As mentioned, exercises are a great opportunity for participants to practice the planning process and IAP development, along with other facets of ICS – especially those that we don’t get to apply so often.  Also consider, however, the use of an IAP for exercise management.  Our company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, worked with the State of Vermont this past summer providing exercise control and evaluation services for their Vigilant Guard exercise.  This week-long exercise spanned nearly 60 distinct venues across the state and involved thousands of participants.  We coordinated over 100 control and evaluation staff throughout the exercise.  While staffing decisions were made weeks in advance, we knew that with so many variables, needs and assignments were bound to change.  For each operational period of the exercise, venues had staff assigned, a point of contact they should coordinate with, a need to communicate with the simcell and exercise management staff, a need to be aware of weather and safety matters, and processes to follow in regard to exercise management and reporting.  We recognized the similarities to a tactical deployment and decided to develop incident action plans for exercise management.  We called these eXercise Action Plans (XAPs).  Within just a couple of operational periods, we were receiving great feedback on the documents from exercise staff.  Use of XAPs were identified as a best practice in exercise management for that project.

Final Thoughts

Incident Action Plans are great tools that can help us put our emergency plans in action.  They allow us to apply incident or event-specific ground-truths and the realities of incident needs and resources.  While it’s understanding that some are frustrated with the forms used, the forms are job aids, tested through decades, to help us navigate complex incident management.  When I walk into a command post or an EOC, the IAP is the first thing I look for.  Because the format and forms are relatively standardized, I can flip through it, and in a couple of minutes have a good sense of the activity and who is responsible for what.  Someone told me long ago that ICS is forms facilitated, not forms driven – and that’s very true.  The forms (and thus the IAP) are products of the planning process, which is another decades-old practice in incident management.

What best practices have you seen in the application of the planning process and incident action plans?

Need assistance with planning, training, or exercises?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!

Until next time.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP