9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

'Had This Been a Real Emergency....' Disaster Exercises in the Comm Center

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2010
Written by Bob Smith, APCO International's Director of Strategic Development.

East Coast to West Coast to Gulf Coast, hurricane season is upon us.  To prepare, many public safety agencies reviewed, evaluated and updated their disaster response plans and procedures, policies, resource lists and inventories, and personnel were quizzed on new and revised policies.

The best way to evaluate preparedness is to conduct a disaster exercise.  FEMA defines an exercise as "a focused practice activity that places the participants in a simulated situation requiring them to function in the capacity that would be expected of them in a real event.  It's purpose is to promote preparedness by testing policies and plans and training personnel."

Exercises evaluate and improve an agency's disaster response by providing an opportunity for "dry runs" or simulations related to specific disaster types.  Exercises allow all responders to proceed through actual response steps - in real time or simulation - in a controlled environment.  They also provide agencies the opportunity to monitor and evaluate their response, the response of others and the effectiveness of their tools, resources and procedures.

Disaster exercises range in format and complexity.  FEMA recognizes several formats, the most common of which are drills, tabletop and full-scale exercises.

Drills are coordinated, supervised exercises used to test a single specific operation or function.  In a drill, there's no attempt to coordinate organizations or fully activate an emergency operations center (EOC).  A drill serves to practice a single component of an agency's response plan and assist in preparations for more complex exercises.

Tabletop exercises are a facilitated analysis of an emergency situation in an informal, stress-free environment.  A tabletop exercise is designed to elicit constructive discussion as participants examine and resolve problems based on existing operational plans and identify where those plans need to be refined.  There is minimal attempt at simulaton:  Equipment isn't used, resources aren't deployed, and time pressures aren't introduced.

Full-scale exercises simulate a real event as closely as possible.  This type of exercise is designed to evaluate the operational capability of public safety systems in a highly stressful environment that simulates actual response conditions.  It requires the mobilization and movement of emergency personnel, equipment and resources and should test and evaluate most public safety functions.

A jurisdiction's public safety and emergency management agencies may conduct disaster exercises regularly, but it's not uncommon for the comm center's role to be minimized or even absent.  When the comm center is involved, the role may be nothing more than receiving the first simulated 9-1-1 call, dispatching the appropriate resources and possibly monitoring radio traffic as warranted.  This lack of participation is unfortunate.  It doesn't gauge the center's preparedness and causes a significant gap in preparedness.

So how do we address this lack of involvement?

Comm center managers must develop and maintain a quality professional relationship with local field agencies and emergency management officials.  Educating these responders and officials to the comm center's role and importance to disaster response operations before, during and after an event encourages the inclusion of the center and its personnel in exercises.

Comm center employees can play  many roles in a disaster exercise, both in and out of the radio room.  They can be used to staff EOCs or to initiate and staff an on-scene Incident Command Post (ICP).

They can also serve as evaluators to gauge and audit specific portions of on-scene operations and compare actions or inactions to exercise objectives, thus establishing a benchmarking process to gauge an exercise's success or failure.  Comm center employees require little explanation of field-level operations due to their familiarity with aspects of field-level response.

They can also monitor and evaluate on-scene radio communications and accountability policies during an exercise.

If the comm center isn't invited to participate in local disaster exercises, it falls to management to ensure policies and procedures are tested regularly.  While a jurisdiction conducts a larger disaster exercise, the comm center can incorporate facets of its own disaster preparedness.  Example:  During a large-scale, mass casualty incident-based exercise, a comm center can drill on its policies for notifying local hospitals.  For a hazmat exercise, the center can practice initiating a mass notification system simply by simulating the initiation of a notice or launching an actual system test.  Or the center can review its procedures for activating a secondary PSAP or transferring calls to a backup agency.

The bottom line:  Whether participating in a jurisdictional disaster exercise or conducting an internal drill, the comm center must establish a formal process for testing and evaluating its preparedness.  As the hub of all public safety and emergency management response, failure to ensure the comm center is prepared can cause a domino effect, hampering operations at all levels during an event.

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