Use of Pre-Developed Exercises – Proceed with Caution

I was recently asked by a client about my thoughts on pre-developed or ‘canned’ exercises.  As it turns out, I have a lot of feelings about them, most of them negative.  Pre-developed exercises, if properly understood and applied, can be a huge help, but the big problem is that we’re dealing with human nature, and some people are just damn lazy.  Garbage in, garbage out.

We need to keep in mind that exercises, fundamentally, are developed to validate plans.  Not my plans.  Your own plans.  While standards of practice mean that most plans have a high degree of commonality (i.e. a HazMat response plan for a jurisdiction in California will be largely the same as one for a jurisdiction in New York State), it’s often the deviations from the standards and the local applications that need to be tested most.  So it doesn’t do well for anyone to replicate an exercise that doesn’t test your own plans.  Similarly, the foundation of exercise design is objectives.  While the pre-developed exercise may have a theme that coincides with what you want to test, sheltering, for example, there are a lot of different aspects of sheltering.  The pre-developed exercise might not focus on what you need to exercise.  With all this, anyone who wants a quality exercise from something pre-developed is going to have to do a lot of re-development, which might be more frustrating than starting from scratch.

HSEEP1

If you want a quality exercise, you really can’t short cut the process.  Not only might HSEEP be required for whatever grant funding you are using for the exercise, but it’s a best practice – and for good reason.  So often people want to cut corners.  If you do, the final product will look like you’ve cut corners.  It might lack proper context, good reference documents, or meaningful evaluation.   The exercise planning meetings have defined purpose, and the documents help capture that process and communicate the intent to specific audiences.

On the other hand, there are proper ways to use materials from a previously developed exercise to benefit your own exercise.  The development of good questions in discussion-based exercises and injects for operations-based exercises can be a challenge.  Reviewing other exercises, especially when there might be some similarity or overlap in objectives, can be a huge help, so long as they are properly contextualized and relate back to objectives for your exercise.  This isn’t a copy and paste, though… as it all should still be applied within the exercise design process.

There are some exercises out there that might seem like exceptions to what I’ve written above.  The first that comes to mind are FEMA’s Virtual Table Top Exercises (VTTX).  The VTTX is a great program, conducted monthly, focusing on different themes and hazards.  FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) assembles a package of materials that go to each community registered for the event, allowing a measure of local customization.  While jurisdictions may use this material differently, it is at least an opportunity to discuss relevant topics and hopefully capture some ideas for future implementation.

Similarly, my company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, recently completed a contract with the Transportation Research Board for a project in which we developed a number of ‘generic’ exercises for airports.  These functional exercises, facilitated through a web-based tool, can be easily customized to meet the needs of most airports across the nation and are written with objectives focused on the fundamentals of EOC management within the timeline of an incident.  While specific plans aren’t directly referenced in the exercises, airport personnel are able to examine the structure of response in their EOC and can reflect on their own plans, policies, and procedures.  Similar to FEMA’s VTTX series, they aren’t a replacement for a custom-developed exercise, but they can help examine some fundamentals and start some important discussions.  I’m not able to get into much more detail on this project, as the final report has yet to be published, but look forward to future posts about it.

All in all, I tend to caution against using pre-developed exercises.  I simply think that most people don’t use them with the right intent and perspective, which can severely limit, or even skew, outcomes.  That said, there exists potential for pre-developed exercises to be properly applied, so proceed with caution and with your wits about you.  Understanding that time, money, and other resources can be scarce, emergency management has always done well with ‘borrowing best practices’.  While there is sometimes nothing wrong with that, short cutting the process will often short cut the benefits.  Do it right.  Use of a custom-developed exercise is going to maximize benefit to your community or organization.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

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Public Health Preparedness as Part of Emergency Management

I’ve written in the past on the need for emergency managers, in the broadest definition, to become more familiar with public health preparedness.  As emergency management continues to integrate, by necessity, into and with other professions, this understanding is imperative.  We need to stop considering EMS as our only public health interface.  Public health incidents, of which this nation has yet to be truly and severely struck by in decades, require more than public health capabilities to be successfully managed – so we can’t just write off such an incident as being someone else’s responsibility.  We’ve also seen non-public health-oriented disasters take on a heavy public health role as concerns for communicable diseases, biological agents, or chemical agents become suspect.  If you are an emergency manager and you aren’t meeting regularly with public health preparedness officials for your jurisdiction, you are doing it wrong.

Aside from meeting with public health preparedness staff, you should also be reading up on the topic and gaining familiarity with their priorities, requirements, and capabilities.  (don’t skip either of those links… seriously.  They each contain more info on public health preparedness).  One of the best resources available is TRACIE.  TRACIE is a resource provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).  TRACIE stands for the Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange.  I’ve been digging around in ASPR TRACIE for the past several years and also receive their monthly newsletter.  I get a lot of newsletters from different sources… some daily, some weekly, some monthly.  I’ve recently unsubscribed to a bunch which seem to have information that has diminished in value, doesn’t seem to be timely, or are poorly written.  TRACIE is one of those that stays.  It has tremendous value, even if you aren’t directly involved in public health preparedness and response.  The information and resources provided here come from public health preparedness experts – these are emergency managers.

Recently, ASPR did a webinar on Healthcare Response to a No-Notice Incident, highlighting the Las Vegas shootings. Check it out.

But public health speaks a different language!  True.  So do cops, firefighters, and highway departments.  So what’s your point?  While public health certainly does have certain terminology that covers their areas of responsibility, such as epidemiology, med-surge, and others, that doesn’t mean their language is totally different.  In fact, most of the terminology is the same.  They still use the incident command system (ICS) and homeland security exercise and evaluation program (HSEEP), and can talk the talk of emergency management – they are just applying it to their areas of responsibility.  Are there some things they might not know about your job?  Sure.  Just like there are things you don’t know about theirs.  Take the time to learn, and make yourself a better emergency manager.

What have you learned from public health preparedness?  How do you interface with them?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

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