10 Tips for Integrating Technology Into Your Training And Exercises
A few years ago, I participated in a training exercise designed to test our agency’s response to … something. Honestly, I can’t remember what our objective was, nor what gaps in our response we identified after the exercise. What I do remember is that roughly 20 people sat around a conference table with different sheets of paper in front of us. For four hours.
I called it the 1950s approach to exercise planning. Conceptually sound, but wildly impractical considering the web-based, interactive technology many of us use to plan for and manage incident response.
Now, I understand that tabletop exercises and workshops are often more discussion-based than action-based. And I understand that in a catastrophic disaster, we may not have access to technology and should know how to do things the old-fashion way. BUT… that doesn’t mean you can ignore technology. Whether you’re simply talking about tech options, or actually implementing a new app or mobile device into your operational exercise, technology allows us to work smarter – not harder – during rapidly evolving incidents.
So how do you make technology integration part of the conversation, and not just an afterthought? Here are a few ideas:
1. Include your Public Information Officer (PIO) during exercise design
Communication and public information technology are evolving at a breakneck pace; your PIO has to keep pace with the changing technology in order to do his or her job effectively. Not only can your PIO offer suggestions about how to manage media and public information during the exercise itself, he or she may be using mobile or online services to research and share information that could benefit your situational awareness.
2. Engage your private and non-governmental partners
Disasters affect everyone in your community, from governments to small businesses, so it makes sense to include relevant private stakeholders when you train personnel and exercise plans. As you’re planning an exercise or tabletop, think of the local businesses or stakeholders it might affect, and engage them in your planning process. Whether it’s an oil refinery or an aerospace company, they may have industry-specific technology or knowledge to bring to the table. Build those relationships before an incident so you know what resources may be available to you.
3. Talk to your boots-on-the-ground staff
In the first hours of a major incident, the communications landscape will be complex – multiple communicators from multiple different agencies… all trying to collaborate through different email and operating systems. Accessible and flexible solutions, such as Google Drive, allow personnel to access important data, regardless of agency affiliation. Ensure your organization understands the boots-on-the-ground technology needs before an incident so you don’t have to make up a solution during incident response. Even if responders don’t know specifically what they need, they definitely know what they don’t have.
4. Exercise Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) early
Everyone knows at least one person or government agency with a UAV. How can they contribute during an incident? When used appropriately, drone photos and video footage can give you perspective on the size or scale of a disaster, or show how response teams or first responders are deploying at the scene. You need know beforehand how to safely integrate a UAV into an actual incident, the capabilities of available UAVs (and their payloads/sensors); training exercises are a great time to identify where and how to deploy a drone, what images you hope to capture, and how the images and data will be used for operations. You’ll also get a better understanding of how weather conditions and ambient light affect image capture, battery performance, and other factors while exploring support technologies that will enable the operator to share data with key decision-makers.
5. Embrace social media
Whether you’re looking for situational awareness or need to share information with everyone in your community simultaneously, social media has information that can help. How savvy are you when it comes to using social media to search for, collect, and share information? Training and exercises are a great time to work with your communications staff to draft or refine a social media emergency communications plan and test out your monitoring/listening skills. You might even consider using a social media simulation program to test out your social media response in (simulated) real-time.
Check out the Federal News Radio podcast about Social Media in Disaster
– with our CEO: Christopher Tarantino, MEP CMCP
6. Talk with your GIS department
The folks who make those multilayered, interactive maps for your website can probably do the same thing for you in training or an emergency. Whether it’s a terrain map of a landslide area, parcel maps, well or underground utility locations, your GIS staff has the ability to create whatever you need. Loop them in during training to understand what resources they can access and how they can pull images and data together in a way that can make training more valuable and inform your real-time incident response.
7. Test out your in-house technology during training/exercises
Have you ever called each phone in your Emergency Operations Center (EOC)? How frequently do you boot up each laptop or computer? Test out your video/audio connections? Sure, we’re all supposed to do it regularly, but why not make that testing a regular part of your training? Even a simple mock EOC activation/mobilization exercise gives you and your staff the chance to set up your technology, re-learn how it works, and see if/where you have gaps. You could even have your exercise planning team make calls into the EOC and send messages through your online systems to explore the comfortability of your personnel with the technology available (frequently the biggest barrier to collaboration in the early stages of an incident involve forgotten/incorrect passwords – this issue and others can be mitigated well before that incident!).
8. Engage utility and transportation partners
From smart electric meters that automatically report to a utility when the power is out, to a network of highway traffic cameras, your local utility and transportation partners have access to powerful technology. Do you know what resources are available to you, or how you can use it to gain better situational awareness and foster a common operating picture among response organizations? A joint tabletop or functional exercise can give you insight into how these agencies use their technology, and how you can develop connections to use that information to your benefit.
9. Leverage crowdsourcing, data-mining, and crisis mapping
What’s easier to understand? A bulleted list of road closures, or an interactive map that plots closures, damage and adds more contextual, real-time updating data to aid in decision-making. Virtual Operations Support Teams can help integrate crowdsourced data (reports of downed power lines, flooded roads, damaged infrastructure, etc.) into a visual mapping or data visualization platform. There may be local volunteers already in your area who could provide support during a real or simulated incident; it’s imperative that these volunteers and other personnel integral to managing displays and data-mining platforms be engaged prior to crisis through training/exercise programming specifically designed for their unique technical and organizational needs.
10. Amateur radios
It’s older technology but still relevant, especially if you’re working or responding in an area with limited wireless coverage. Moreover, ham radio operators can supplement your traditional communications, and help streamline the flow of information from the scene to the ECC (they can even send files such as PDFs to/from radio stations!). Training is a great opportunity to cultivate local volunteers and work them in to your emergency response plans.
Interested in implementing any of these ideas into your training / exercising?
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Epicenter Media & Training’s CEO/Founder, Christopher Tarantino, was interviewed by Tom Moran (Executive Director of the All Hazards Consortium and Co-Host) and Tim Karney (Editor & Co-Host, All Hazards Emergency Network) on “Disaster Resilience for America” on March 15, 2016. Here are some of the key takeaways.