Training & Education

Reaching for Elusive Operational Readiness (Opinion)

Experience comes from making mistakes, admitting that better choices were available, and applying lessons learned from those mistakes.

Operational readiness for emergencies and disasters is elusive; it comes and goes and doesn’t stay long when you have it. There are many factors that make up operational readiness. Its foundation is having policies and procedures in place. But this is only the start. If I could add one more basic element it would be a functional, survivable emergency operations center (EOC). With this in place, you can work on the challenging part of the operational readiness equation — people, training and exercises.

I’d take actual experience over training and exercises, but it’s not always possible. Experience comes from making mistakes, admitting that better choices were available, and applying lessons learned from those mistakes.

I live in a high hazard area where disasters are common. King County, Wash., has averaged a Presidential Disaster Declaration every two years — more than 20 events in 40 years. This provided plenty of experience for staff who supported EOC activations.

Without actual events, training and exercises can sustain operational readiness. Training can take many forms. There are the National Incident Management System and Incident Command System courses that are orientations to how the overall national system and first responders in the field work. But what really supports operational readiness is having regular meetings with EOC responders, the pre-identified staff who will report to the EOC when disaster strikes. At monthly meetings, you can review policies and procedures, talk about ongoing planning and discuss upcoming events. One technique we used to make these trainings worthwhile was tabletop training exercises in which a scenario was presented and the implications of responding to the event as an EOC team was discussed. A twist on that concept is to have departments explain how they respond to incidents, the types of information they need and the difficulties they face.

If I had to pick one thing that will greatly enhance operational readiness, it’d be disaster exercises. These don’t have to be full-scale, lights-and-sirens-in-the-field events. I prefer functional exercises that have EOCs activated and interacting with one another. Using the exercise and Master Scenario Events List, you can put the EOC staff through the paces. Emotions can run high and you find out who can take the pressure and stay focused when a disaster strikes.

I prefer exercises that are pre-announced and on everyone’s calendar. That’s the only way to get people to the EOC. When people know of upcoming exercises, they spend the extra time and effort to prepare to do their individual jobs and perform well as an organization. These pre-exercise preparations are more valuable many times than the actual event. As I said, it’s the people factor and continuity that provide the special ingredient in operational readiness that makes an EOC hum like a well oiled machine.

Unfortunately we must deal with the emergency manager’s curse that turnover begins once you have relationships in place, and people are trained and practiced. Employees change jobs and employers, retire, get promoted, quit or even get fired or termed out of office. This curse will always be with us, so get used to it!

In the end, operational readiness if graphed, is never a straight line or constantly climbing. Instead it looks like a mountain range with peaks and valleys. My advice is to use training and exercises to make the valleys not as deep as they might become if you didn’t concentrate on building the relationships and capabilities that make for operational readiness.

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