Answering the 'What Ifs' with Real-Life Training

As emergency management professionals in London train and prepare for the upcoming 2012 Olympic Games, police are presently falling short in mitigation efforts to combat large-scale rioting throughout the United Kingdom. At the same time, Norway is dealing with mass casualties from a so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attack, spurring that nation to evaluate the reaction and be better prepared for a similar situation in the future. The quintessential message is: The world is filled with good guys and with bad guys. The time has passed for the world to understand the unpredictable state of day-to-day threats. It is now time for the world to be prepared to mitigate the crisis when and where it actually happens.

The looming threat of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil (or against U.S. forces overseas) highlights the importance of effective planning efforts in responding to crisis situations. Whether the anomaly of the recent act of terrorism in Norway or staying ever vigilant against the threat posed by al Qaeda, preparation is paramount and complacency has no place in emergency management. Emergencies and crisis situations similar to those of the past are inevitable, and for that reason public and private organizations must plan and jointly train to be successful when combating these evolving threats. Many if not all organizations are, in fact, continuing to prepare for that untimely day an attack will occur – but relatively few of them incorporate enough “real-life” exercises that integrate all responding agencies and other affected resources.

Emergency exercises are designed as a practical response to the growing threat of a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or other large-scale emergency. They are, therefore, or should be, a core component of the preparedness component of emergency management, and an effective exercise program impacts each phase of the emergency management cycle. Agencies conducting diverse emergency exercises increase their own prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities. These caveats can be fine-tuned through workshops and seminars, tabletop exercises, and functional exercises – but most effectively through full-scale exercises.

TTEs & FSEs: The “Real-Life” Differences

In the wake of several attacks and attempted attacks, it becomes necessary at some point to test an agency’s capability. The most common methods of testing are through the use of various mitigation and preparation exercise programs, including both tabletop exercises (TTEs) and full-scale exercises (FSEs). Most TTEs and FSEs are crafted to address policy as well as strategic issues. Both types of exercises test prevention and response systems and also: (a) require participants to make difficult decisions and carry out essential functions; and (b) challenge their capabilities to maintain a common operating picture during a significant incident.

TTEs are usually more sanitized, typically performed in a room-type setting or simulated command post, and assist in facilitating a scenario. Unfortunately, they all too often lack the full integration that more accurately simulates the presence of a real-life situation.  Unfortunately, because a typical TTE is a facilitated group analysis of an emergency situation, in an informal and stress-free environment, participants may feel that they are sometimes “just going through the motions.” The TTE is particularly well designed for an examination of operational plans, problem identification, and in-depth problem solving, but without the actual deployment of resources. In addition, it provides an opportunity for key agencies to become familiar with one another, along with their interconnected roles and unique duties and responsibilities.

In contrast, an FSE is performed in the field, under simulated conditions but as close to “real life” as is physically possible, forcing participants to take the exercise more seriously. The FSE is designed to create a high level of stress, with the desired multi-agency approach, and involving an “actual” deployment of resources in order to fully evaluate the situation – as if it is actually happening in a real-life incident. In an FSE, incorporating both operational and tactical considerations into the exercise is imperative in order to include and evaluate tactics, technical aspects, and procedures that would be deployed to cope with a real-life threat.

Vulnerabilities, Prevention-Mitigation & a Three-Phase Task Sequence

Having a well-balanced program, and coupling TTE with FSE, can create a valuable tool for emergency management executives – and should not be overly difficult. TTE and FSE go hand-in-hand by nature and the differing aspects of their training should be routinely conducted in an effort to develop a more cohesive and proactive approach to an actual crisis event. Such exercises are particularly valuable in pointing out vulnerabilities that management will have to address in the prevention-mitigation phase of response operations. In addition, such training allows participating agencies to practice a response that can help ensure a desired, measured, and efficient outcome to an actual crisis. Moreover, the FSE demonstrates exactly what resources may be required during the recovery phase of those same operations.

Through the use and implementation of FSEs, agencies can also better assess, organize, and diminish lapses in emergency management plans by addressing any shortcomings detected in the exercise. Agencies that develop a highly structured FSE also will be better equipped to evaluate operational plans and response systems already in place, while examining inter-jurisdictional relationships in greater detail.

Whether agencies follow the guidelines established in the U.S. National Incident Management System (NIMS) or a modified version, several factors must be considered in the onset when developing and building an emergency exercise program involving both FSEs and TTEs – the cost of the program, for example, and how it fits into the annual budget. Among the other important factors to be considered are: (a) defining the capabilities of the agencies participating; and (b) the setting of realistic goals for the entire organization.

Not all scenarios or “blanket scenarios” will work in every setting, of course. In the development of the program, therefore, both a short-term plan and a long-term plan should be established. After the agencies participating have crafted an acceptable plan, therefore, and that plan is approved, the process of staging the exercise for the organization should include a sequence of tasks that will transpire in three phases: (a) before the exercise; (b) during the exercise; and (c) after the exercise.

A Joint Approach Fosters Improved Relationships

Although TTEs and FSEs are important to first responders, they can also be used as a means to prepare communities, agencies, and facilities for both natural and manmade disasters. Integrating the federal, state, and local levels of government allows all parties of interest to gain a better understanding of overall response capabilities and the incident’s possible effect on the community. A key aspect of an emergency exercise program is the fact that it fosters relationships within the critical-incident response phase that might otherwise not be present. As in a real-world response, agencies and organizations position resources into the field and face realistic incident-specific challenges, including the allocation of limited response resources and the exercise actions needed to effectively manage unforeseen conditions and circumstances as and when they develop.

Planning and preparation for the exercise also help strengthen working relationships between the departments and agencies critical to successful prevention and response in real emergencies. Exercises are designed not only to create an understanding of deficiencies and response capabilities, but also – perhaps even more so – as a way to foster better working relationships between emergency management agencies’ response components and governing authorities. This in turn will create a greater opportunity for agencies to understand the risks involved in their specific facilities, to identify planning deficiencies, and to test emergency management personnel systems not only for known strengths but also for areas that need improvement.

Authorities should for that reason create a realistic scenario that challenges the partner agencies to respond to a crisis incident in order to test their objectives and to determine agency capabilities and reactions should such an incident actually occur. Crisis management exercises should also, when feasible, include both international and domestic scenarios and therefore provide for the inclusion of foreign governments.

For example, an emergency exercise involving a terrorist incident should be broken down to meet several specific components, including: (a) the actual prevention and deterrence of the terrorist threat; (b) the deployment of resources that actually would respond to the terrorist incident; and (c) management of the probable and foreseeable consequences following the incident. The crisis management aspect also should include a major effort to provide: medical treatment and emergency services; decontamination services, if and when needed; the evacuation of victims and/or innocent onlookers from the scene of the incident; and the restoration of any services disrupted during the attack. Therefore, when an incident such as a terrorist attack does occur, often without warning, both crisis management and consequence management would immediately become fluid activities.

No-Notice Exercises, Murphy’s Law, and the “What If” Complications

There is considerable debate, understandably, among government agency executives regarding “no-notice exercises.” Although it is important to see how quickly federal, state, and local agencies can respond, such exercises tend to be much broader in scope than pre-planned exercises and can be disruptive to the normal day-to-day operations and responsibilities of the agencies directly involved.

Emergency exercises should be led by a single agency – which would be responsible for planning the exercise, setting the objectives, scripting the scenario, coordinating the logistics, and evaluating the results. Logically, therefore, the lead agency almost always provides the bulk of the resources and personnel needed to coordinate the exercise. After-action reviews capture key lessons learned from all of the emergency responders involved, and make recommendations for improvements. The most important components of after-action reviews include the following: (a) An overview of the exercise and the emergency activities carried out; (b) An assessment of exercise goals and objectives; (c) An analysis of the outcomes and capacities needed to perform critical tasks; (d) The development of recommendations for improvement – including the specific improvements for each partner agency involved; and (e) The creation of an accountability plan for follow-up evaluations.

As in other real-life events, “Murphy’s Law” will likely play a role in training exercises as well. When planning exercises, each component should be spelled out in the contingency plans. It is not uncommon for communication systems to be disrupted and information technology (IT) components to fail. Building in contingency plans to engage the “what ifs” will assist with response efforts when those what ifs occur in real-life situations.

There are clear benefits for conducting such exercises on a routine basis. Agencies will develop a greater consistency of response, a more proficient use of resources, and an increased confidence in staff – while building a stronger relationship with key partners in emergency management. A valuable exercise program will include both TTEs and FSEs and should be prepared to incorporate progressively multifaceted exercises, with each exercise building on the previous one, until they are as similar to real-life scenarios as is humanly possible. Furthermore, the exercise, whether FSE or TTE, should cast a wide net to encompass various organizations such as fire and police departments, emergency management, local public health, public safety, the Red Cross, and others as needed. Finally, all exercises should be both cautiously and comprehensively planned, with a clear end goal in mind.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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