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October 26, 2007

Managing Multiple Hats - Plan Exercise Development

Written by  Michael Frishberg
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Putting together exercises requires lots of different skills. Many times, exercise designers are placed into the job with little or no experience. Lots is expected of plan owners, emergency managers, and contingency planners in government and industry when they perform plan exercises. Here is a sample of what skills are needed and why. Let's assume you are the exercise designer, plan owner, chief developer and bottle washer.

Presenter - Putting together a plan exercise can require face-to-face meetings, potentially over the course of several months. Get ready for lots of meetings, of increasing complexity, which you'll get to lead!

Author/Text Editor - These skills are perhaps obvious. A few of the tasks which are generally accomplished through the written word include: convincing management that the plan needs to be exercised and that the exercise is cost (in time and money) justified by the potential plan improvements; writing the directive that management sends out to let the participants know when, why, and who will be exercising; writing measurable objectives; coming up with meaningful scenarios containing enough recognizable problems, but not too many, for the exercisers to deal with; and messages to players which will appropriately affect and effect their planned response so it can be evaluated. Then, after the exercise itself is over, one must produce an after action report, which details lessons learned about the plan and about the exercise process itself, along with plan corrective actions.

Obviously, being a good communicator is key to successful exercising.

Logistician - Here a just a few of several hundreds of items we have identified which may be required to run a successful exercise. Develop pre-exercise meeting dates, times, and locations, obtain/confirm equipment to be used, put together information packets for evaluators, observers, participants, simulators, et al., notify adjacent jurisdictions (or businesses, or the community), hold a press conference, issue formal invitation to exercise participants, create signs both for organizing participants and to create artificialities, obtain vests or other distinctive clothing to identify the role of participants, perform health safety and comfort activities like making sure there is food for all, restrooms, return transportation for volunteer victims to get back from the hospital, deal with data and voice communications equipment and frequencies, obtain security (participants sign-in), and materials required for the exercise (paper, pens, markers, display boards) etc. etc. etc. The worst exercise failures are due to failure of logistics. Participants get upset when they don't get fed, which means they don't learn anything, and won't want to do it again either! Simulated victims can become actual victims if logistics are neglected. After it's over, don't forget to send thank you notes to participants...

Politician - Pleasing audiences, skills and tact in dealing with people, and care when designing an exercise are key. Every organization has its politics, and exercising can bring out the worst. What if, as a result of the exercise, your organization shows exactly how prepared it is for disaster? Sounds like what you want to have happen after a successful exercise, but whose face has egg on it, whose budget is now increased or decreased, who can justify their existence for the last year or the next year based on this result? Best to know going in at least what is potentially going to come out. While no one is accusing you, there have been tales of exercise designers using exercises for other purposes than simply evaluating plans. . .

Planner - Planning the exercising who, what, where, when, why, how, and how much it will cost is crucial to success.

Survey creation and Statistician - Designing terrific evaluations is extremely important if you want to determine what went right or wrong with the exercise. Actually, just ensuring that each objective of an exercise has an evaluation associated is sometimes a non-trivial task. Evaluators need to have the best possible choices on their form, so they can easily/speedily determine if what was to happen did happen, by the right person and on time (if that is what the objective is measuring!). Of course, placing the evaluators so that they have a chance to actually observe the action is crucial as well. Good exercise design also involves having the answers capable of being collected, reported and collated easily (hence the statistician skill).

Project manager - Just tracking all of the tasks which occur before, during and after an exercise, especially a functional or full-scale one, requires project management skills.

People manager - Last but not least, getting people to break from their everyday occupations to play act a simulated disaster and making it a fun and fulfilling experience is an interesting and difficult task. Management has limited tolerance for time spent in training to begin with, but a 'blown' exercise is a double hit since it needs to be performed again to evaluate the items which didn't get assessed the last time. While your people skills are excellent, we're sure you can sympathize with those out there trying to develop exercises without them.

Given this list of tasks, who can possibly be good at all of this? What organization could afford to hire such a person? Of course, the designer must also be familiar with the hazards, the plan, the level of training of the participants, the agreements for mutual aid, and a few dozen other items before they have a real head start on success.

The answer to solving the exercise management problem is multi-faceted. It isn't always quite as complex as all of the above may indicate. There is a solution to accomplishing exercises even when they are complex, get a design team to put the exercise together.

Cooperation between exercising partners is essential for lots of reasons. As stated, it is sometimes too difficult for one individual, or even one organization, to put together an appropriate plan exercise. Also, consider what happens when disaster strikes. Lots of different departments, agencies, jurisdictions, and organizations are affected, and potentially need to rely upon each other to accomplish their various planned goals. Most plans therefore depend on others to get their goals accomplished. There is some degree of perceived vulnerability on the part of an organization which opens itself up to others who can see, as a result of the exercise, exactly who is prepared for what. Achieving the organizational goal to survive catastrophe should override any possible embarrassment.

In the words of a FEMA regional exercise coordinator, 'We respond together, why aren't we exercising together?' Getting started may be the hardest step, there is no time like the present.

Michael Frishberg is president of Cliffside Software, Inc.

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