States Prepare Plans, Build Relationships for Unique National Exercise

2011 exercise will focus on a catastrophic earthquake, and the eight participating states are already working with partners to determine their roles and responsibilities.

by / December 10, 2010
March 2010 EM Illustration

Although 2011’s National Level Exercise (NLE) isn’t until May, participants at all levels of government have already begun preparing. And getting ready for the drill isn’t a small task — it’s being hailed as one of the largest emergency exercises in the nation’s history and the first to turn the spotlight on a natural disaster.

NLE 2011 will exercise the response to a catastrophic earthquake on the southwestern segment of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which is located in the Southern and Midwestern regions of the U.S. What makes this scenario particularly timely is it will occur during the bicentennial anniversary of the historic New Madrid earthquakes that began Dec. 16, 1811, with a magnitude 7.7 quake. Six earthquakes followed that ranged from magnitude 6.0 to 7.7 as well as 200 moderate to large aftershocks, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The earthquake exercise will provide a means for states to test their initial incident response and recovery capabilities as well as test and validate existing plans, policies and procedures.

“In the past, National Level Exercises have always had a little bit of lack of realism simply because we’ve picked some kind of man-made event,” said Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management. “Well, the National Level Exercise in 2011 is actually based on a real scenario, a validated threat.”

NLEs are congressionally mandated exercises that are directed by the White House and coordinated by FEMA. The 2009 NLE was the first exercise of its size to focus on terrorism prevention. According to FEMA, the NLE is a tier 1 exercise conducted annually in accordance with FEMA’s National Exercise Program, which serves as the nation’s overarching framework for planning, organizing, conducting and evaluating national level exercises.

Workshop Builds Partnerships

In preparation for NLE 2011, a Resource Allocation Workshop was held in Nashville, Tenn., from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, and brought together the eight participating states — Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. It also included representation from the federal government’s emergency support functions, which include transportation, energy and mass care; local and regional partners; private-sector representation for the retail and critical infrastructure fields; and volunteer organizations.

The Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC) sponsored the workshop. Heltzel, the board chairman of CUSEC, said the workshop’s primary goal was to increase the level of understanding about the states’ plans and what the emergency support functions (ESF) could provide. “We wanted to change the process so we could change the outcome,” he said.

Activities during the workshop included:

  • Each state briefing its emergency response plan in accordance with the earthquake threat.
  • Two and a half days spent in a “round robin format” in which each state met with each ESF partner to discuss what it could provide for the state.
  • A back brief during which each ESF discussed its concept of execution and the main issues that need more discussion.

“I think everybody left with a better understanding of how the roles and responsibilities fit together,” Heltzel said, “and I believe that people are better prepared now to execute that plan than ever before.”

“The workshop will provide the participants with advantages on the injects into the exercise that drive the Exercise Master Scenario Events List,” he said. “We now know what realistically we should be asking for and what the response timelines will look like.”

For example, during the workshop participants identified that they would be asking for a significant number of Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMAC) — which allows disaster impacted states to request and receive assistance from other member states — during the NLE. “We identified many of the EMAC missions that we would be passing to sister states that surround us, where first responders, additional medical community personnel, law enforcement would flow into the state, and we talked about how that would occur,” Heltzel said.

To ensure that all of the nation’s emergency management agencies and partners can benefit from the work done at the Resource Allocation Workshop, CUSEC is working with FEMA to create a model that can be applied to other states and regions to improve their planning efforts. Heltzel estimated that the output documents will be ready for general review by the end of January 2011.

Although the workshop was just one part of the preparation for NLE 2011, it showcases the emergency management culture of collaborative planning and thinking.

“I think the biggest thing that I would highlight is the amount of cooperation that we got and the fact that we saw all the partners — local, state, regional and federal partners —pulling together, all trying to come to a better solution in a very cooperative manner,” Heltzel said. “And that was really good to see; that’s not always been the case. For four days in Nashville last week, we had everybody working on realistically solving the problem. I really believe as a nation that when we do that, there’s nothing that we can’t solve.”


Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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