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Disaster Exercises: Set the Standard

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Andrew Holcomb

One of the most important roles of emergency management practitioners is to show that they can prove their competency in managing disaster events. A well-accepted method of demonstration is the disaster exercise or drill. However, the key is to take a reasonable idea and implement the plan during an effective scenario. Disaster exercise planners should consider the steps that will increase chances of a successful event.

A good guideline for disaster events is to expect that performance will reflect training. Realistic scenarios, with thought given to practical assessments, will show participant compatibility, training deficiencies and resource needs. If participant are only trained using tabletop exercises, performance will parallel only that type of preparation during an actual event.

Although citizens are not the frightened hordes depicted in films, it is reasonable that people will want to protect family and property. Any pre-event knowledge will enhance cooperation of the citizenry…

Know the Limitations of Exercises and Staff
Although emergency managers would like to spend unlimited budgets on equipment, training and personnel, it is unrealistic. Agencies must contend with limited budgets and foster support from policymakers. A good first step is to undertake a legitimate hazard assessment, which will allow planners to learn what is probable and the event exercises that will be supported by government representatives. For example, a small, rural town might want to conduct a full-scale exercise for chemical spill from a railcar. However, financial constraints and support might limit the town to conducting a tabletop exercise for tornados since a spill is the more likely hazard.

Instill Morale
It is vital that emergency managers ensure that exercise participants understand that their involvement is important. A good way to show responders that they matter is to provide them with adequate training and tools to perform. Listening and taking action on legitimate concerns is also another way to demonstrate to personnel that their contributions are valued.

For example, if staff members report problems concerning radio communications, managers should address such logistically-vital issues immediately. A manager needs to be professionally competent to understand the importance of reliable communications for responders as well as show that they care about staff concerns; this serves a two-fold purpose of raising morale and providing inspiration for writing a justification to policy makers for reliable equipment.

The majority of exercise participants are not employed in this capacity full-time. Therefore, disaster exercise planners should understand that it is necessary to integrate training during the calendar year. Pre-event preparation will avoid negative views that training is inadequate, which can lead to low morale.

Involve Citizens
Understanding the populations that will be affected by a disaster is part of conducting a responsible hazard assessment. Although citizens are not the frightened hordes depicted in films, it is reasonable that people will want to protect family and property. Any pre-event knowledge will enhance cooperation of the citizenry, which will then make the job of emergency planners easier.

Anyone planning a disaster exercise should seek the knowledge of the local population. People living and traveling in a particular area daily will have information about the local hazards in addition to concerns about the planned disaster drill. Road conditions, areas prone to flooding, and times of the day with crowded traffic are some of the things that emergency managers could discern from local citizens. In addition, reaching out to local leaders fosters a sense of confidence in agencies that they are competent and prepared.

A special consideration during disaster exercises should be given to at-risk populations. The elderly, special needs and transit-dependent citizens often cannot jump in a vehicle and evacuate or shelter in-place. Facilities and accommodations for at-risk citizens need to be integrated into any disaster exercise or event planning. If realism of an event is the goal, special equipment, counseling, and medical services are some of the distinctive resources needed for vulnerable populations.

Coordinate with other Agencies
Similar to citizen groups, liaisons with participating agencies should be established, especially between disaster exercises. Forming partnerships with other groups serves a dual purpose. With a multitude of personnel from varying agencies, municipalities and responder groups, everyone involved needs to understand the purpose of a disaster exercise and the knowledge, skills and abilities participants bring to the event. In addition, forming personal relationships with other participants will allow a level of understanding of other people and their capabilities.

Cross-training with various disaster exercise groups allows an agency to learn strengths and weaknesses. True professionals in any field do not horde information on successful training practices. Building on the training success of others allows emergency managers to progress their goals of becoming proficient and prepared. Exercise planners should not be afraid to admit shortcomings. They should simple strive to rectify the problem.

Merriam-Webster defines accountability as “accounting for one’s actions.” Preparing for a disaster exercise in anticipation of an actual event is a major undertaking. Assuming responsibility for preparing a disaster exercise is not something for timid personalities unwilling to accept blame or praise. Anyone who has planned anything larger than a family gathering understands that logistics, preparation and personnel play a role in a successful exercise. As exercise planners or emergency managers, it is important to train personnel and take care of their needs.

Training responders tasked with implementing an exercise plan and taking care of their needs will increase morale and readiness. Whether it is securing the proper equipment or obtaining psychological counseling for personnel, professionals will respond when they understand that they are managed by competent people who accept responsibility for their position. In addition, it is important to demonstrate that consequences will follow for failure to properly plan and prepare. Instead of being viewed as negative, consequences should be looked at as a standard to meet.

Cultivate Environment of Leadership
Responsible emergency managers also seek leadership qualities in subordinates. Willingness to follow directions is not the only item of interest in quality responders. Participating as a member of a team and the ability to be autonomous when required are characteristics that should be cultivated in exercise participants. Hopefully, the need to implement a disaster plan will never be needed in a community. However, if necessary, all involved should have confidence that responders are well trained, motivated to perform, and led by competent professionals.

Andrew Holcomb is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University and a health physicist for the State of Tennessee. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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