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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