Closing the Loop in Preparedness Exercises (Opinion)
Although exercises are a good way to evaluate plans and procedures, following through on the improvement plan is key to reaping the most benefit.
Exercises are an integral part of preparedness in emergency management and homeland security. Absent participating in an actual incident, there is no better way for us to evaluate plans, procedures, decision-making, operational capability and various other factors. Although these exercises utilize resources that are finite, they are an investment that pays a significant return. The National Preparedness System Description states that “an effective and comprehensive exercise program that includes active collaboration with the whole community is essential to the success of the National Preparedness System.” The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) provides us with the guidance that leads us through exercise design, conduct, evaluation and to what is perhaps the ultimate goal — improvement planning. Let’s be honest, though — how effective is the follow-through on your improvement plan?
Why do we conduct exercises? We test and validate capabilities and identify our strengths and limitations. The next logical step is to fix areas that limited our capacity to respond, although often times we fail to implement changes indicated as a result of the exercise. Why? One of the most significant reasons is lack of funding. That is why improvement planning needs to begin even prior to planning for a particular exercise. Rather, funding should be identified in the program management phase of the HSEEP cycle. Actually securing the funding, however, can be challenging. After-action reports from previous exercises can provide the greatest investment justification when seeking funding in that they provide actual evidence of an assessment process assembled in an official document. The same goes for the inclusion of a training and exercise plan. The bureaucracy of grant cycles, however, can cause delays in accomplishing our improvements in a timely fashion. If you are the recipient of regular annual funding,
such as a local allocation of the Emergency Management Performance Grant, you may want to earmark a percentage of these funds for improvements.
New York state provides a good example of innovation in funding cycles. In recent history, the state authorized the allocation of Homeland Security Grant Program dollars to an Improvement Planning Fund, which was administered by the state’s multiagency Exercise Coordination Committee. The committee reviews after-action reports and improvement plans and provides funding, albeit limited, to jurisdictions that demonstrated a well analyzed outcome and reasonable justification for the funding need. While in many cases the funding wasn’t able to cover the entire cost of the improvement, it provided some aid.
While funding is often our most significant challenge, we cannot dismiss the investment we make in our exercises. While we are able to practice skills and cognitively learn from our exercises, which is certainly a valuable outcome, the learning must be institutionalized through documented procedures and operating guidelines. Even this documentation, albeit a relatively inexpensive improvement, is rarely completed. As with all of our other activities, we need to maximize our dollars by maximizing our investments.
Improvement plans need to transcend the matrix provided in the HSEEP after-action report/improvement plan template. While the matrix is a summary of the improvement plan, we all know that a matrix alone does not constitute a plan. The improvement plan needs to be comprehensive, identifying all aspects of the improvement — some of which may be very simple while others may be very complex. The complexities need to be identified as do the barriers to success. Some deficiencies identified in the after-action report may need to be further explored as the exercise itself may not have fully validated or assessed them. You may need to break down systems and procedures to fully uncover the reasons they fell short of performing as expected. This type of analysis requires time and recognition that the actual solution won’t be known for certain at the time of publication of the after-action report/improvement plan. That said, be sure to set firm deadlines.
In the business of emergency management and homeland security we can’t afford to miss an opportunity for improvement. We don’t know when the next incident will occur, however, we know that it will — therefore we must always have a sense of urgency.
Tim Riecker is a partner with Emergency Preparedness Solutions LLC, a private consulting firm providing preparedness services to government, private sector and not-for-profit clients. He is a former state training officer and exercise training officer with recognized expertise in NIMS, EOC management and HSEEP.