Exercises: Simple is Usually Better

I find often that people want to run exercises they aren’t quite ready for.  Sometimes those exercises are too complex, or they simply aren’t the appropriate type.  Most often, we run exercises to test plans, policy, and procedures; but sometimes those plans, policies, and procedures aren’t quite ready to be tested.  Last year I advised a client to run a workshop instead of a tabletop exercise.  The initial goal of the tabletop was to validate a new plan, but this plan wasn’t ready to be validated.  The problem was that many stakeholders hadn’t yet seen the plan, and the review of that plan by our team in preparedness for the exercise wasn’t favorable.  The plan had much of the needed content, but it was disjointed and didn’t have any logical flow.  By conducting a scenario-based workshop, we were able to identify not only the ideal flow of the plan by flagging benchmark activities, but we were also able to discuss expectations of and for each stakeholder agency in the plan.  The client was then able to apply the results of the workshop to restructure their plan and make some needed substantive changes.

Similarly, I’ve encouraged a current client to conduct a workshop instead of a tabletop.  The initial goal of this tabletop was to identify how a new group of stakeholders could integrate into an existing plan.  In this situation, the tabletop would have been less than effective as the new stakeholder group isn’t yet identified in the plan.  The outcome of the workshop will be to identify how this integration can occur.

I think that sometimes people gravitate to certain exercises simply because they are more popular in a certain application.  That preconceived notion might be too complex or simply a poor choice for what you really need to accomplish.  When it comes to discussion-based exercises, most people default to a tabletop.  With operations-based exercises, it can vary.  Drills are often used for tactical applications, but we don’t see them as much in EOCs.  Drills certainly have a place in an EOC if you are looking to test a very specific function or activity.  While full-scale exercises are fun and sexy, I’ve been to the site of plenty that are total chaos because the fundamental premise of certain plans hasn’t been worked out (or some stakeholders aren’t familiar with them), which perhaps should have been done through a discussion-based exercise or a drill or functional exercise first.  Running a drill to test and familiarize the process of setting up key equipment prior to doing it for the first time in a full scale will pay a lot of benefits, and certainly prevent dozens or hundreds of other people being held up in a full scale.

Another issue I often see with exercises is very long and complex Master Scenario Events Lists (MSELs).  The MSEL is essentially the timeline or script of the exercise.  Along with listing all injects, it also identifies all benchmarks in the management of the exercise, such as StartEx and EndEx, and the introduction of new elements or transition to a different segment.  While there is no particular rule of thumb for how many injects are needed for different exercise types, everything needs to associate back to the objectives of the exercise.  I hate injects that are crafted simply for ‘noise’ (unless it’s an intel exercise), or injects intended to just give someone something to do.  Arguably, if the participants take an exercise seriously, such as a functional exercise, and play out the situation as they would in real life, you can engage an entire EOC for a few hours with even ten well-crafted injects.  While some functions are very focused, consider that the vast majority of what we do in emergency management requires coordination among a variety of elements and functions.  Capitalize on that.  One inject may engage multiple agencies or functions because of the need to coordinate and problem solve.  It’s not enough to identify a solution to the problem, but work through where the resources will come from, how they will get to where they need to go, and what support is needed for them and how long.  That’s a lot of problems to solve and will often transcend every function within the incident command system.  Exercises don’t need to be complex to be effective.  Create a handful of objectives and make sure everything relates back to them.  Simplicity can work.

My last recommendation is to keep your exercise planning team a manageable size.  I’ve been the lead planner for some very large exercises.  These exercises, largely due to their sponsors, ended up involving massive exercise planning teams – and by massive I mean over five or six dozen people – or more.  These are just sheer insanity.  Not every agency or organization involved in the exercise needs to be directly represented, nor does each organization need to send a small army of people.  What you do need is consensus from those organizations on the objectives and their scope of play.  That doesn’t mean they have to be involved in every aspect of planning the exercise.  Just like any other meeting or group project, a large exercise planning team can be cumbersome and management by committee is never efficient.  If need be, stakeholder groups can be developed based upon function.  For example, a fire service exercise planning team would develop their contributions to the exercise.  Just make sure that these groups are well coordinated and the overall exercise planning effort is unified, otherwise you’ll end with a disjointed exercise effort.

In the end, simplicity rules.  As you begin planning your exercise, consider, in every step if it can or should be simplified.  Always refer back to your intent and your objectives.  Chances are you can create a simpler exercise that is just as impactful, or perhaps more impactful.  When our inclination is to make things overly complicated, we often miss the point entirely.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

 

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