Lessons Learned from a Multi-Centre Exercise

About a month ago, I acted as controller for an emergency exercise that I had designed as a part of my EMBC program. The exercise I controlled for was part of a larger Multi-Centre exercise that involved three townships and the county. This exercise had been a year-long project, essentially like a thesis project for my program (which is only a year long).

The exercise narrative involved an ice storm, with my township experiencing complications like a truck crash on the highway, power outages, and house fires. (No skittles this time…)

The design process was complicated due to the nature of the exercise. Because we had 4 EOC’s running over a 4 hour period (with one half-hour period where all four were activated simultaneously), we had to figure out a way to deliver inputs smoothly. Eventually, we decided we would have one Master Sim Cell which would be separate from the EOC’s, and then three smaller Sim Cells in each township. In retrospect, this was one aspect of the exercise that I would have changed if I could do it again.

The night before the exercise, I could barely sleep, I was so anxious. I had been working on this project since before Christmas, and I was going to be completely in charge–all of our teachers and my project manager would be at the Master Sim or other EOCs. Fortunately, my classmate and best friend would be with me, taking charge of our mini-Sim Cell.

The day of the exercise, I drove myself and two classmates to the Town Hall, which was about a 35 minute drive away. There was a moment when I was convinced I had put the wrong address into my GPS and we were going to be super-late, but we arrived right on time.

As for the exercise, it went well. Being the perfectionist that I am, within 20 minutes of activation, I was convinced the entire thing was a disaster. Everything felt too slow, and my Sim Cell had identified a few problems with my inputs. By the time the exercise ended, however, I felt differently. The debrief and evaluation went well, with most participants agreeing that it had been a good experience. Though it was incredibly unnerving to stand in front of the ECG (including the Mayor, CAO, police chiefs and fire chiefs) and tell them what to do, it was also really cool.

I mentioned I would do a few things differently if I could do it all over, and here they are:

1) I would have one master Sim Cell. One of the biggest problems we had was communicating changes to the script. We would change an input that fire was giving, but have trouble updating our OPP rep in the Master Sim, so conflicting information was going into the EOC. Most exercises aren’t perfect, and sometimes things need to be changed on the fly, which is much easier when you have fire and police sitting next to each other in the Sim Cell. That being said, I had a lot of “on-the-fly” changes, which brings me to my next lesson:

2) Research, research, research. I spent hours upon hours looking at maps of my township, researching streets and hazards and response protocol. What I didn’t do was ask any first responders from the township whether my scenario was realistic or not, and I should have. The participants in my Sim Cell were great at improvising and coming up with changes (by changing where a power outage might be, for example, or fixing street names) but you don’t always have the luxury of first responders in the Sim Cell. The more realistic the scenario, the more prepared the municipality is for a real disaster.

3) Relax. I heard advice once that was something along the lines of “Prepare as much as you can and then relax.” Though there were things I could have done differently before the exercise, I genuinely feel as though I had no way of learning that until I’d gone through it. I’d worked hard on the exercise, and there was no need for me to get as stressed out as I was on the day off. Fortunately, I did learn that I work well under pressure. Any situation that came up, I managed to resolve, and even though my insides were a jumbled mess of nerves, I’m pretty sure I appeared calm and professional.

The best thing about this exercise is that it only confirmed further just how badly I want to work in this industry. The excitement and enthusiasm are so apparently in an EOC, even in an exercise. Even the design process was incredibly satisfying and fun. I just hope that despite all of the cuts I’m hearing about, I’ll be able to find some kind of position that will let me put this experience to good use!

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