Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

No-Fault After-Action Reviews

Why does communications remain the thorny problem that it is?

No. 1 finding from any functional or full-scale exercise usually is a need for better communication. FEMA

Preparing an after-action report (AAR) to identify what went well and what needs improvement is standard after a disaster exercise, be it a seminar, tabletop, functional or full-scale exercise.

Based on the AAR, an improvement plan can be formulated that, according to the FEMA exercise formula, will ensure that the same errors or omissions are not repeated during an exercise or an actual emergency or disaster.

If you have a mathematical formula, following it, like following a recipe, will produce the results that you expect — yet, it doesn’t seem to be the case when applied to the process we’ve established for making corrections to our emergency management exercise program. Let’s explore some of the causes.

Ask any emergency manager what the No. 1 finding from any functional or full-scale exercise is, and they will tell you it is the communications function that was identified as needing improvement. Why then does communications remain the thorny problem that it is? If we can anticipate that communications will be a problem, we should be able to address it and emphasize that function during the preparedness phase before an event and during the actual exercise. 

In reality, one of the primary issues with AARs and improvement plans is that no one pays attention to them once they are completed. They are written, go in a three-ring binder and are placed on a shelf. The traditional disaster preparedness phase includes planning, training and exercising, yet in most emergency management organizations, not that much time is actually spent by staff in the areas of training and exercising. Instead, emergency management staff members get sucked into program management. 

Thus, training and disaster exercises, especially those associated with a specific plan, become somewhat rare events. I don’t lump all the FEMA-required Incident Command System and National Incident Management System courses into the category of beneficial training that makes a difference in exercises and events. People take the online courses, punch their ticket as being trained, forget what they might have learned for the moment and move on with their normal jobs. In performance management terms, we are counting “butts in seats” at training classes as accomplishing something. Rather, the true measurement is people’s ability to do their disaster jobs, which is harder to measure and is a subjective measurement at that. 

There are other dynamics at work. The first is that when it comes time to conduct the next exercise, many of the faces have changed. We live in a very mobile society, and with people retiring, changing jobs and having other priorities beyond coming to some exercise (you can put elected officials and senior management in this group), the same mistakes made in the previous exercise are made by an entirely new cast of characters. The value of repetition is lost since the players are constantly changing.

Back when I was in the Army in Armored Divisions, we said there were two glass balls: training and the maintenance of equipment. Yet I never saw anyone relieved of command for bad training. So it is with our state and local emergency management programs. It takes an event, a disaster, before someone is axed for a poor outcome. But then no one can seem to put the formula of two plus two together to understand that it was a lack of a good AAR system and training that was the issue. 

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