An important aspect of emergency preparedness is a robust exercise program designed with the vital purpose of identifying gaps, updating plans, and strengthening emergency response. Exercises bring together key stakeholders to help build collaborative relationships that pay huge dividends when the real emergency arises. Simply understanding other agency protocols and operational capabilities are valuable lessons learned from most exercises. However, exercises go beyond the checklists, plans, and policies. They offer the opportunity to get to know other people and solidify teams.
COVID-19 may have temporarily disrupted the way exercises have been conducted in the past. With a little ingenuity, though, these disruptions should not stop exercises from occurring. The January 2020 Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) guide describes exercises as:
A low-risk environment to familiarize personnel with roles and responsibilities; foster meaningful interaction and communication across jurisdictions/organizations; assess and validate plans, policies, procedures, and capabilities; and identify strengths and areas for improvement. Exercises bring together and strengthen the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from all hazards.
Since the ability to social distance while conducting valuable exercises is limited in many physical settings, a viable solution is simply to go remote. Remote seminars, functional exercises, and tabletop exercises present challenges, but also some unique opportunities.
- The remote format – The format of remote meetings itself can be an obstacle. Familiarity with these systems is similar to other technological solutions. They take time and practice. Many virtual meetings are plagued by poor audio or video quality, unmuted comments, and confusion over whose turn it is to speak. These issues can slow or even derail the success of an exercise.
- Gauging the room – Another challenge is the inability to gauge the room during remote exercises. The body language of others and visual cues are almost completely missing from remote exercises. It becomes nearly impossible for the facilitator of an exercise to utilize these clues to determine which problems to push and how others are reacting to the scenarios, identified procedures, and solutions. It also makes it very difficult to determine who is paying attention and engaged in the exercise until they actually speak.
- Delivery of information – The virtual exercise format can also severely limit how to deliver information to participants. PowerPoint presentations almost become a necessity as videos, audio recordings, and white board scribbling lose viability or effect in the virtual environment. Some element of “surprise” for the participants may be lost when read-ahead documents and information need to be sent to exercise participants that would normally be handed out in person at the exercise.
- Relationships – Although remote exercises still offer opportunities to get to know other people, they will never replace face-to-face engagements for building relationships and teamwork.
- Expanding participation – One issue with in-person exercises is the limit on who can participate. This is even more of an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic as social distancing requirements would increasingly limit the number of people who could occupy a space for an exercise. By using a virtual platform, these issues can be alleviated. Additional personnel can participate in exercises, including those who would otherwise have to travel from longer distances to the exercise location – for example, a federal or state partner. By expanding who can participate in the discussion, the remote format could give a voice to someone who may not have been willing to speak up in a crowded room. Some organizations may even choose to record the exercise to easily share with others after the exercise.
- More exercises and increasing awareness – One of the biggest advantages of remote exercises is the ability to have more of them. During the pandemic, many people have to work from home and may have a little more “free time” on their hands. An emergency preparedness exercise is a great way for organizations to help fill some of that time. Taking advantage of the additional downtime of key stakeholders would facilitate progress on outstanding problems and projects through the use of exercises.
- Fostering new relationships – Building relationships is a key aspect of emergency preparedness, and exercises are a great way to accomplish that. By expanding participation and holding more exercises, new relationships can be fostered and older relationships can be strengthened in a collaborative setting.
- Time saving – Attending an hourlong tabletop exercise often takes more time getting to the exercise than the exercise itself. Saving a couple hours during an unprecedented public health emergency is a huge advantage, not to mention some cost savings associated with travel.
Adapting to COVID-19 requires problem solving, adaptability, and perhaps a little creativity. Exercises continue to be critically important. Using a remote format for exercises ensures that organizations do not miss important opportunities to increase preparedness, even if such opportunities would not have arisen during normal operations.