The Problem with Disaster Exercises

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Emergency managers don’t conduct disaster exercises to show off, but to learn, then apply what we learned. That’s often made more difficult than it has to be.

Factors that impede an exercise

  • The senior elected official bails out” – sending a surrogate (ok, maybe something “important” comes up). Far too often, the absence is prompted by the fear that the “boss” might look indecisive, or inept in dealing with the scenario. That absence sends a message to other officials that they, too, can find something to “come up” that precludes their participation.
  • The appropriate subject matter experts are not participants. For example, even when time is allotted for recovery issues after a disaster response exercise, the participants are not investment bankers, budget analysts, legislators, or community advocates. So, the personnel that would oversee, execute and influence the recovery processes long after response personnel and even FEMA recovery teams disband aren’t tested. If those who must deal with significant economic, social and physical recovery issues are not involved in the projected aftermath of the exercise scenario, it’s likely these challenges will be unnecessarily divisive, and perhaps insurmountable following a real event.

The Catastrophic Full – Scale Exercise Conundrum

  • It’s necessary to practice for worst case events. However well-intentioned, the bigger the exercise, the greater the danger the results will fall well short of the stated objectives. High visibility, federally funded full field exercises often are truncated in time and scope so federal assets can “arrive” while the media’s cameras are rolling. Even though the feds often are bankrolling the exercise, and thus in control of the sequencing of events, this artificiality limits the opportunity of locals, and states, to deal with the exercise scenario’s challenges before the federal assets would realistically be able to mobilize and deploy.
  • Exercise scenarios must allow for a path to successful response and recovery. Doomsday scenarios may be entertaining, and might assist private industry and government to contemplate (and prevent) worst case outcomes, but for emergency managers “no hope” suggests we ought to just head for our own basements and await the end.

Ultimate determinant of worth of an exercise

  • The best exercises reveal gaps in preparedness, resources, knowledge and coordination. No one dies in a disaster exercise, hopefully. Lessons learned, then applied as part of a post exercise Improvement Action Plan, can save lives in a real event.
  • A good exercise: when evaluators and controllers state that participants almost made them forget that the event was not “real” (an accolade often accorded to Washington State’s EMD professionals).

Building the Mega Exercise

Preparations for mega exercises should include preliminary seminars that build familiarity among senior government officials with the range of crises they might realistically encounter on their watch, from minor to major to catastrophic scenarios. The worth of the exercise is found not in its initial, momentary shock value, or in its capture of media attention for a “TV minute”, but in the level of increased understanding of roles, capabilities and gaps that results.

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