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!

The light at the end of the tunnel…

This is what the office desk looks like when I'm on duty

I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The end of the school year is only two weeks away, but it still feels so far. The next week is completely insane. There is a significant portion of my brain that this telling me to just bury my head under the covers and only come out when it’s all over. Another part is telling me to drop out.

Fortunately, the rational part is telling me to put a smile on and get through it, because I will be so proud of myself when it’s all over.

I’m currently studying for my DRI certification exam, which is tomorrow. This exam will certify me as an Associate Business Continuity Professional. Even though I’m not sure business continuity is the direction I want to go it, I know having this certification will be valuable if I do. Unfortunately, it feels as though there is too much to study and not enough time. I love my index cards, so I’ve been spending the last couple of days furiously writing out definitions and notes on the 10 professional Practices. Needless to say, I’ll be glad when it’s all over!

Tomorrow night I’m running another Therapy Dogs program. Everyone is stressed, and it seems even worse now that we only have two weeks left. It’s also getting to the point where some people realize that after this year, they probably won’t see each on a daily basis. This makes people either really sad, or really disrespectful, depending who you’re talking about. Hopefully the puppies will make everyone feel a bit better.

On Tuesday, we’re finalizing the business continuity plan we’ve been working on all year, and next week we will present it to our client. It’s been such a long time in coming, it’s hard to believe it’s almost done!

Wednesday is the most hectic day. Along with my group, I’ll be facilitating a tabletop exercise at an Ontario Ministry in order to test one of their emergency response plans. Our exercise is fine, but we need to practice the presentation aspect of it–definitely not my favourite thing to do. As soon as we are done at the Ministry, we’re heading back to school to deliver a public education program to our class. I’m doing mine on how businesses can help prevent terrorism. Again, my presentation is done, but I’ve been waiting until after DRI to practice it.

For those of us that are in the EM program as well as working in Res, we will then hurry back in order to get ready for the Student Leadership Banquet. I’m actually really excited about this, as we get to dress up and watch our colleagues receive awards for leadership. It should be a nice way to end a crazy day!

On Thursday I’m handing in the After-Action Report for the exercise I designed and controlled last week (more on that in another post), as well as starting work on the AAR for the Ministry exercise. Friday will be used for finishing everything up, and then Saturday is the school open house. Some of my classmates will be on the main campus, telling prospective students about the EM program, but I’ll be giving tours around the residence.

Let me tell you, I can’t wait to go home and have a break! I’m a little disappointed that I don’t have a job lined up, but I plan on spending the whole summer applying and volunteering, so I’m sure I won’t get too bored. It will definitely be nice to read books for fun again!

Skittle hazards

This semester, our class is responsible for designing and controlling 2 functional exercise and one full scale exercises. Our clients include municipalities and private companies. My group is responsible for a county not too far from where our school is located, and I’m specifically in charge of creating the Master Scenerio Events List (or MSEL) for one municipality within the county.

We decided to simulate an ice storm, since a weather event can cover a large geographic area and allows us to have staggered activation times. It’s been fun coming up with different problems that could arise during the disaster, but its also been challenging because we want to make sure the scenario is realistic. We also have to make sure that all of our scripts co-ordinate somewhat with each other–since EMS and Social Services are county responsibilities, the events in my municipality (including prompts for Police and Fire) need to correspond to the EMS prompts in the county MSEL. We also want to make sure that the Emergency Control Group is kept busy for two hours, without being overwhelmed, and that everyone has something to do.

My biggest challenge has been figuring out where I can place my different events. Car accidents and downed trees are a simple prompt I can insert, but I need to make sure that the roads I’m targeting aren’t county roads. I also need to make sure that when I take out power lines, I’m taking them out on a road that actually has power lines!

To help me conceptualize, I’ve been sitting on my floor for the past couple of hours with my maps, trying to make sure my prompts make sense. I couldn’t find any post-its, so I improved–with skittles!

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Some of my residents came in and ate a car crash and a couple of downed trees, but fortunately I snapped these on my phone before all the hazards got eaten!

I’ve been noticing how much more time I spend on the ground in college than I ever did in university! I really like how I can physically see the things that I’m doing and get out and actually do them, rather than spend hours at my desk writing essays (although, don’t get me wrong–I do plenty of that too!)

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My MSEL still needs a bit more work. I’m not an expert at first response procedures, so we are consulting with some police officers as well as the CEMC’s of the municipalities we’re working with. At the moment, I have a fairly detailed Excel spreadsheet listing all of the prompts that will be called in from the Sim Cell on the day of the exercise. I’m definitely grateful for my summer job at Foreign Affairs last summer–even though all those hours struggling with Excel almost killed me, I feel like an expert now!

I’ve also got a floor meeting tonight in which I have to address some awkward issues–namely the use of derogatory terms and stolen food. Usually my floor is pretty good about showing up for these things, but I’m not sure how receptive they’ll be–especially this close to midterms.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to go snack on a traffic jam.