Planning, training and exercising are supposed to be continuous in the emergency management field. The question is, when are you done? When is good, good enough? At what time do you reach the point of diminishing returns?
For planning, it never seems to end. Once a plan is written, you have to train people to the plan and then exercise it with those people and outsiders too. In both training and exercising, you will find gaps in your plan document. This comes from having more eyeballs on the document, and then the act of exercising the plan will reveal areas that either were not addressed at all or are in need of revision.
How long and how many pages should a plan be? And what is the best format for a plan? While there are plenty of planning guides available, I still see this topic debated and the opinions vary greatly. Some would like to weigh a plan to determine its value. The heavier the “thud factor” when tossing it on a desk, the better the document is deemed. Then there is the opposite camp that promotes shorter, checklist-like plans that are really a set of procedures sometimes tailored to specific positions in an EOC. This latter concept comes from the fact that most people don’t read the plan or attend training and may not even participate in exercises. The thought is that at least they will have a checklist to follow when thrown into an EOC activation
Once a plan is written, there should be training on it. I strongly recommend this aspect since as noted before, most people won’t read the plan in the first place. This training can take the form of an information briefing that touches on all aspects of the plan — and better yet, people have a copy in front of them that they can walk through with the instructor. Ideally, before you have a “real exercise” you can take the people trained on the plan and have seminar-like discussions on how the implementation of the plan might play out. Since no plan will ever address every situation, there is always some interpretation that’s thrown into the mix.
When it comes to exercising the plan, there are numerous options, from a seminar, tabletop, functional and up to — and including — a full-scale. If you are trying to familiarize people with a plan, the best options are seminar and tabletop exercises. These two forms of exercises provide an excellent forum for the participants to learn from one another. When you move to a functional or full-scale exercise, most of the learning occurs during the exercise itself. At best you can hope that cross-functional and inter-jurisdictional learning takes place during the after-action reviews of the exercise.
After doing exercises of all types for more than 40 years I’ve decided that the full-scale exercise should be relegated to those paid for by the federal government. They are very costly to conduct because of the use of first responders and the need to pay overtime and backfill. To exercise first responders on aspects of a plan, you are still better off with tabletops for command staff and drills for line staff.
So again, when is good, good enough? Truth be told, I don’t think we are even close to being “good” in all aspects of our planning, training and exercising.