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How to Create an Effective Emergency Management Exercise Program

by Intermedix Staff on Nov 17, 2016 3:32:53 PM


During my long career in emergency management, I have often heard, “Don’t let the emergency or disaster be the first time you meet or exchange business cards with the ones you have to work with.” In other words, meetings, training events and exercises where you meet other responders and learn their capabilities and limitations, are all a key part of a community’s overall preparedness program.

Being able to have the opportunity for one-on-one interaction with other responders is not only vitally important for the betterment of a preparedness program but also for the overall success for real-time incidents. No matter if you opt into a basic or complex training exercise, being able to have the skills available to understand your community or organization’s strengths and weaknesses will allow for future operations to run smoothly.

Reasons to Conduct Exercises

There are many reasons to conduct exercises to benefit your organization. When you run an exercise you are able to:

  • Evaluate policies, plans and procedures
  • Identify planning weaknesses and gaps
  • Determine baseline capability
  • Improve performance of people and systems
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities
  • Gain public recognition and support
  • Satisfy regulatory requirements and standards

The items listed above are probably benefits you are well aware of, but perhaps you haven’t conducted exercises because the idea of a comprehensive exercise program sounds prohibitively expensive or resource intensive. While some organizations have complex training programs, it is important to not be afraid of the complexities and start with the basics.

How to Create an Effective Exercise Program

Exercises should be designed to engage team members and get them working together to manage the response to a hypothetical incident. Post-incident critiques often confirm that experience gained during exercises was the best way to prepare teams to respond effectively to an emergency.

Not all exercises need to have a large jurisdiction or an enterprise organizational scope, exercises can be held at the department or division level to ensure your team is ready when needed.  The best approach to guarantee your team is ready is by developing an exercise program beginning with an assessment of needs and current capabilities.  After the development of the program, start a review process of the risk assessment and program performance objectives.

  1. Start with the Basics

I equate an exercise program with the development of a child. You need to learn to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. In other words, start by conducting a walkthrough or orientation session to familiarize team members with the preparedness plans. Review roles and responsibilities to ensure everyone is familiar with incident management. Identify probable scenarios for emergencies and business disruption based on your geographical location and industry. For example, if you are located in Florida, hurricane response preparedness is key, if you work for an airline, an airport terrorist attack might be something you need to be ready to respond to.  

Use these scenarios as the basis for tabletop exercises. A tabletop exercise is conducted in a non-threatening environment where participants test elements of their plan through a facilitated discussion. The discussion typically focuses on the most likely scenario the jurisdiction will face, and results in a validation of plan elements

  1. Hold a Functional Exercise

As the program matures and team members are a bit more comfortable with the program, consider holding a functional exercise. A functional exercise tests plan elements in a more stressful environment, requires rapid problem-solving, and involves the simulated deployment or use of resources in near real-time. When you are thoroughly familiar with the plans and your role in them contact your local emergency management office to determine if there is an opportunity to participate in a full-scale exercise within your community. Allowing your team members to see a hypothetical situation will give them a firsthand experience so they are best prepared for the real deal. There are many tools you can use to hold a full-scale exercise. For example, WebEOC users can take advantage of the simulator to automate exercise injects. A full-scale exercise also provides a valuable opportunity to validate status board processes in your WebEOC system.

  1. Identify Improvement Points

Exercises should be evaluated to determine whether the objectives were met and to identify opportunities for program improvement. A facilitated “hot wash” discussion held at the end of an exercise is a great way to solicit feedback and identify suggestions for improvement. An after-action report that documents suggestions for improvement should be compiled following the exercise and copies should be distributed to management and others associated. Suggestions for improvement should be addressed through the organization’s corrective action program.

Identifying and gathering key players, setting objectives, organizing an exercise, facilitating a feedback session and being open to change in order to improve response, are vital steps to making sure your organization is prepared for an emergency or disaster. Facing a hypothetical scenario and building working relationships will hone your team members’ skills. In addition, conducting these exercises will give confidence and assurance to everyone in your organization.

To help further simplify the process of exercise design and conduct, the Intermedix Training Center has many “off-the-shelf” exercise scenarios that can be tailored to your location and organization. The exercise injects come to you in the form of a WebEOC Simulation and includes an Exercise Inject Board.

Contact the Intermedix Training Center for more information.

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This post was written by Intermedix Staff