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Preparing For the Worst

Whether you've participated in hundreds of emergency response exercises or not a one, a new online resource will benefit you and your agency in planning a real-time scenario—especially if you're interested in federal funding.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

Whether you've participated in hundreds of emergency response exercises or not a one, a new online resource will benefit you and your agency in planning a real-time scenario-especially if you're interested in federal funding.

A brand new asset to anyone planning an exercise is a new federal government Website that details guidelines for emergency response exercises. According to the HSEEP Website, "The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) is a capabilities and performance-based exercise program that provides a standardized policy, methodology, and language for designing, developing, conducting, and evaluating all exercises."

This site details the federal standards for planning and conducting exercises, so it's certainly a good starting point if you're planning or updating exercises for your agency.

"I would suggest any agency go to that Website and begin to model their exercises after what they suggest so that everybody has a unified emergency response," says Lt. Kevin K. King of the Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department. "They have everything from the evaluation forms to the layout. And they even have examples of exercises to follow."

It's so impressive that King says, "There's no need now to create your own exercises."

While this is essentially true, you'll still need to tailor exercises to the environment and resources in your jurisdiction. And there's a lot that goes into this process.

Setting Priorities

Practically anything could happen in your jurisdiction that would require emergency response. Your job is to come up with scenarios for likely targets and incidents so you can develop an operational plan for how to handle probable events.

"You basically look at exercises for what they call hard targets and soft targets in your community. And you identify both the hard and soft targets," says King. "And then you develop your exercise pertaining to what you feel is important."

In April 2006, King coordinated Long Beach PD's involvement in the Long Beach Airport's triennial emergency response exercise, which involved more than 20 agencies. Long Beach's priority, beyond preparing for an emergency response to a terrorist attack at the local airport, was to improve communications with other agencies. This involved testing a communications system from PacketHop that allowed all agencies participating in the exercise to communicate via a mobile mesh wireless network.

One of the tricky parts of being involved in any exercise is maintaining your own agency's priority while contributing to the overall training aspect of the event. This is especially true if your agency is the organizer.

Currently, one of the main priorities of many agencies conducting exercises is justifying funding for equipment.

"Other than audits, that's the only way the government-on all levels-can hold these emergency responders accountable for the money they're spending," says King, "to see what they've spent it on and to make sure it works." But money isn't the only impetus for conducting drills. There is of course the motivation of improving skills used to protect major targets in an agency's jurisdiction.

"The lieutenants and the commanders of the agency should be well aware of what issues they need to work on, and create exercises in regards to those," King says. "A certain manufacturer or industry in that city could create an issue for emergency responders."

Dep. Chief Frederick Capper of the Lakewood (Mass.) Police Department recognizes the need for specialized responses to potential targets in his city.

"Our jurisdiction is rather unique," Capper says of Lakewood. "We're equidistant from New York, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City. We also have a very large Orthodox Jewish community, hosting one of the largest rabbinical study centers in the United States. So we have a series of responses detailed out should we have any events at that college location or any of the major Jewish facilities we have here."[PAGEBREAK]

When you think that a variety of incidents could occur in any of these locations, it becomes mind boggling how many exercises you could conduct. "For example, take a crowd control response used to test new equipment such as gas masks or PPEs that have to be fitted vs. a mid-air commercial airline crash," says King. "They're different responses."

But it doesn't have to be overly complicated. Establish which exercise you most need to conduct and hash it out.

"You sit down and you begin to develop your priorities, you understand what you're trying to accomplish, and then you write it backwards," says King. "Write it backwards from what you want to accomplish to how it gets started."

Sending Out Invitations

Once you've decided on your goal for the exercise, you must decide which agencies you'll ask to join you. This will depend on the type of incident and what type of response assistance you'll require.

"The most important thing you can do is to recognize and list what assets you would anticipate needing in any situation," says Capper, "and then knowing who has what and how quickly they can get it to you."

If you don't already have this information, contact all of the agencies that might ever respond to an incident in your jurisdiction and collect it now. You'll depend on this data when you require assistance. Don't skimp.

Lakewood PD also tries to expand its list beyond the usual suspects. "The Ocean County Office of the Fire Marshal is primarily charged with arson investigation, but they often help us with information such as building capacity," says Capper. "They also have some command facilities that would be available to us. In our particular area, that might be a resource that not many people are aware of."

You might find some valuable assets in places you don't normally look for assistance. But be careful to not let the guest list get out of hand. Remember, you need to make sure you can still reach your agency's goals with this exercise.

"Each agency will use the exercise to its advantage," warns King. "So if Torrance PD is bringing a new emergency trailer, they may want to set up the command post for you.

"It's left up to each agency who they want to send and what role they want to play. That's why it's important to make sure it doesn't grow beyond the capacity that you want."

There are some tricks for making the physical guest list smaller without leaving important agencies out of the exercise. And it doesn't have to compromise the training.

"You don't even have to have the people with those resources attend," confides King. "You can say they're on their way or you can call them the day of to see if they want to respond to the exercise. The FBI is really good at this. You can call them up and...they'll tell you how they'd respond."

No matter how big it gets, don't let the planning and execution of the exercise overwhelm you.

"The difference between a small exercise and a multi-agency exercise is just the size of the exercise," says King. "You're still going to get emergency responders to a location, identify and assess what that emergency is, and then mitigate the emergency."

The Almost Real Deal

Just because this is practice doesn't mean it shouldn't be as realistic as possible. Unless you face the challenges you would in the field, it won't be a successful exercise.

"The tabletop exercise is an excellent learning tool, but I don't think you can substitute for actually being out on the street and doing the event as close to real time as you possibly can," says Capper. "You have weather and traffic variables that you can't really play out too well on a tabletop. And if you're not familiar with the site there are things like terrain problems you wouldn't know unless you were out there."[PAGEBREAK]

Using role players as suspects and victims enhances the realism of an exercise. Police officers can be used in a pinch, but it's helpful to use actors or volunteers that participating parties don't know. The Long Beach Airport exercise had particular success with this tactic.

"We had about 200 volunteers as role players," says Dep. Chief Robert Espinosa of the Long Beach Fire Department. "This year we also used volunteers from community college drama departments and used make-up and drama people. Some of our 'patients' were given acting assignments. That absolutely helped."

Conducting a realistic exercise is ideal for training purposes. But remember that if it's believable other people might not know it's pretend unless you notify them. Alert surrounding agencies, the media, and the public that a drill will be held. You don't want people taking unnecessary action because they mistakenly think a training scenario is a real incident.

"I know a bordering municipality that posts large billboards around the site whenever they're doing a training exercise to let everyone know it's not real. That seems like a pretty good idea," says Capper of Lakewood PD. Do whatever you need to do to prevent an actual incident occurring in response to your realistic drill. Then get on with the exercise and be flexible if something unexpected does happen.

You can plan all you want, but chances are the exercise won't go exactly the way you thought. And that's OK. That's how real life is, too. Roll with it.

"Plan how you would respond to a lack of something or a missing component," suggests Espinosa of Long Beach Fire. "It shouldn't be so fine-tuned that no one could possibly perform [the necessary tasks]. It should allow leeway for actors, participants, and others to develop to best suit the overall exercise." And if you make mistakes, be glad it's only an exercise and you can go over what happened and perhaps learn something new.

Lessons Learned

After the exercise, take time to analyze what went right and what went wrong. Be honest with yourself, your agency, and other agencies. The only way to improve is to recognize where changes need to be made.

"At the airport, we found the initial response unified command system we had in place needed to be strengthened between police and fire, as always," King says. "We determined that we needed more exercises, so we've had three since then. They're ongoing."

Through conducting more exercises, Long Beach PD has improved communication between city agencies to streamline decision-making. "Decisions were being made, but decisions were being made for the fire department and decisions were being made for the police department without communication or interaction between the two of us," says King. "Now, there's much more dialogue between the two agencies."

There are many obstacles to be overcome during exercises, and they can't always be fixed with improved planning. Equipment failure is always a possible pitfall. And it doesn't take much to halt an operation if communications goes down, even over something as simple as a dead battery or a storm disrupting satellite transmission. But that's life.

"Sometimes it's the smallest things that you don't anticipate," acknowledges Capper. "There are some things, it seems no matter what you do, you're going to have to contend with the problems. Every time we go out it's a learning experience for us. We debrief and we move forward from there."

Future Plans

The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program Website is just the beginning of the changes to come. Federal and state governments are rapidly standardizing the way all public safety agencies conduct emergency response drills. What's more, you can expect these events to get bigger and more frequent.

"The future here is to create week-long exercises that are multi-agency and multi-tasked," says King. "Currently, we are probably at a one- to two-day level of exercises. Eventually the federal government would like our state to conduct three yearly weeklong exercises: one in the south, one in the north, and one in central California. I think the state has bought into that, too."

Most states have or will soon have Websites similar to the federal HSEEP. These new resources are exciting and useful, but also rather daunting considering the overall expectation of nationwide compatibility.

In the meantime, it might be easier to make smaller strides toward public safety unity by improving communication through more joint-agency exercises. The more agencies become familiar with the way local departments work, the smoother all emergency responses will go.

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Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
Managing Editor
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