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Making the Case for More Realistic Disaster Exercises

The push for more credible exercises was made by former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and echoed by professor Hans Scholl, who looked at the Cascadia Rising 2016 Exercise that was one of the largest ever held in the U.S.

When Craig Fugate was the FEMA administrator, he was an advocate for doing catastrophic disaster exercises. His point was that it does us little to do just exercises that we estimate we can handle. Our planning, training and exercising need to stress our systems and use methods that we know will limit our ability to respond to the unusual conditions we’ll have to operate under.


This push for more realistic exercises is echoed by University of Washington professor Hans Scholl, who looked at the Cascadia Rising 2016 Exercise that was one of the largest ever held here in the United States.

Scholl has investigated disaster responses and disaster response information management for more than a decade. He is a board member of the global Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) association, which organizes academic conferences on the subject around the world. He is also a former president and founding member of the Digital Government Society.

Scholl responded to a series of questions about improving our ability to respond regionally to catastrophic events.

What is your academic background and how did you come to be interested in emergency management and organizational capabilities around disaster response?

I earned a Ph.D. in information science from the University at Albany (SUNY) in 2002 and hold a master’s degree in business administration from the GSBA [Graduate School of Business Administration] Zurich, Switzerland. Academia is my second career after more than 20 years in the high-tech industry with technical and managerial appointments at Data General and Apple, among others.

In 2003, I joined the University of Washington Information School, where I have studied problems in the context of information management since. A major focus of these studies has been the public sector and the fascinating field of digital government. That is, how technology can help improve the business of government in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, transparency and participation.
I came across the various challenges that first responders face when responding to emergencies and major incidents such as the 2001 Nisqually earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. That investigation became a personal eye-opener to me regarding the risks we live under in this area. From that moment on, I began dedicating more of my research to the subject.

What was the size and scope of the Cascadia Rising 2016 (CR16) Earthquake Response Exercise and what drew you to look at this event?

The CR16 exercise was one of the largest civilian-led emergency exercises ever conducted in this country. It involved 23,000 active participants in three states (Idaho, Oregon and Washington) along with military components, such as the respective National Guards, the Coast Guard, the Navy Region Northwest, NORTHCOM, TRANSCOM, and the Joint Base Lewis-McChord. FEMA Region X coordinated a number of federal agencies. Also, relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were involved, along with a number of private-sector participants.

After the Oso, Wash., landslide in 2014, I conducted a two-year study on information-related challenges during that response, which drew me directly into the preparations for the CR16 exercise, which were unfolding at the same time. I became involved in all three stages of planning, executing and evaluating the exercise. I helped with planning the evaluation of “situational assessment” at FEMA and state levels. During the exercise for a full day, I actively participated in the Seattle EOC response coordination as a member of the damage assessment team in the Situation Unit. After the exercise, I helped evaluate the situation assessment-related outcomes and provided input to the FEMA/Washington state after-action report.

 You looked at two specific areas involving catastrophic disaster response:

1.    How do coordination and collaboration challenges change or stay the same when responding to a catastrophic incident?
2.    How do other managerial challenges change or stay the same when responding to a catastrophic incident?

Yes, we specifically looked, first, at the development of situational awareness (SA) and the so-called common operating picture (COP), which are the pillars, on which every effective response firmly rests. The more incomplete or even distorted the situational awareness, the less accurate is the COP, which then leads to suboptimal responses at the very least.

However, and second, incomplete and distorted SA/COPs also increase the per se expectable managerial challenges of communication and coordination between and among responders. The larger the scope, scale and duration of an incident, the more complex becomes the management of the response in terms of coordinating and the various and numerous entities involved. Disasters do not know or care for human jurisdictional borderlines and purviews. They affect multi-jurisdictional areas, and as a consequence, responses need to be coordinated across jurisdictions, or, they become far less effective.

What remains common to all incident responses is that SA/COP is the prerequisite, without which no response can perform well. For small-scale, small-scope and short-duration incidents such as a house fire, or a multi-car accident with fatalities, SA/COP can by and large be established [in a timely way], and accurately and quickly. The information will be actionable immediately, and the coordination of various responder groups (for example, police, fire, transportation) is pre-scripted, proven and well-coordinated in advance. That response scenario does not hold but changes rather substantially, once, in particular, scale and scope, and with those, the duration of the incident’s impact increases. Now routine response patterns do not work anymore, and most importantly, SA/COP are not readily available. It may take days and weeks rather than minutes or a couple of hours to get the complete picture, which — as I said — is the pre-requisite for any effective and targeted response.

When it comes to catastrophic incidents, the notion of responders’ “readiness” is illusory. However, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s remarks immediately come to mind, when he said that the plans are worthless, while the planning was indispensable.

 What were some of your findings as they relate to the exercise design and emergency management desires to “wish away limitations” that will come with a catastrophic disaster?

CR16 was to mimic the response to a magnitude 9.0-plus earthquake and accompanying tsunami in the Pacific Northwest. What we already know with great certainty about an incident of that magnitude is that a population of about 8 million will be directly impacted.

Due to collapsed structures (bridges, buildings, etc.) or impassable roads (flooding, surface failures, landslides, etc.) people will find themselves trapped in “islands” with no ingress nor egress in pockets of a few hundred to many thousands. Mass transportation will come to an absolute standstill. Even on foot, people will have greatest difficulties to leave or enter those “islands.”

Moreover, clean water from the tap will be unavailable immediately. Also, sewer systems will be down. However, worst of all, electrical power will be knocked down not for hours or days, but rather for months if not for more than a year. That means among other dire affects, there will be no lights, no communications, no phones, no Internet, and come night, it will be pitch black.

There will be no SA/COP for a long time. While the exercise scenario book described and quantified these more-than-likely effects on the critical infrastructures in quite some detail, the way the exercise was played appeared to suggest that responders and responder facilities were sort of exempt from any damage or degradation. However, before we become too critical of these “artificialities,” we need to remind ourselves that this was the very first time that responders have faced this scenario even in an exercise.

So, the mostly table-top exercises demonstrated the enormous challenge to everybody involved despite the unwarranted assumptions about the availability of electronic communication channels, power, and the like. What we learned was actually the urgent need for an upward and downward-scalable response portfolio of procedures, techniques and methods that integrate high-tech to low-tech, that is, paper and pencil-based operations with on-foot messengers instead of text messages or electronic-document sharing via the cloud or email. Furthermore, this integration also needs to be designed and tested for upward scalability, once power and electronic communications come back ever so slowly.

When you take away electrical power and digital communications, inter-jurisdictional coordination becomes much more difficult. What are the solutions to the issue?  It appears limiting communications outages to only a few hours is not the answer.

It certainly is not. As I just said, we have nothing in place for the downward nor for the later upward scalability. We found nobody who had seriously thought about this problem in the context of the exercise. We seem to just not accept that we could ever be empty-handed when it comes to modern communication technologies. That is a grave fallacy.

Since we have not thought through this problem systematically ourselves, I cannot offer any tried and tested approaches. We need to sit down with responders at all levels and look into these two scenarios. If it is for some time only paper-based planning and messaging documents, then how will those be copied and disseminated, and how will they be archived?

At least, elements of SA/COP can be put together back there. Then, can we, for example, fly updated and recharged laptops and rechargers, which can be used in the field for a day, into the impact areas until they are flown out at the end of the operational period along with more paper-based documents that are entered in turn overnight, leading to a more complete SA/COP?
Can we fly in, and/or can we recharge/refuel mobile cell towers overnight so that even locally connected base communications can be maintained and be re-established? So, what I am trying to say is, this will not be a trivial logistics problem.

We are 15 or more years into the implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) yet, at least for this exercise — and I don’t think it is the exception — we have not achieved an integrated situational awareness and logistics system at the EOC level. Why, what did you find?

As emphasized in our reports, we are a home-rule state, and for emergencies DC-1 to DC-5 on the Fischer scale (Fischer, 2003) this concept of home rule is very practical. All disasters are local, and locals know best about their turf. They will typically make better-informed decisions than any outsider can. The home rule gives every jurisdiction the freedom to determine, whether or not they want to implement the principles and the doctrine of NIMS and ICS. NIMS, and ICS at the core, are practices derived from decade-long response experiences.

While some of my academic colleagues have criticized what they saw as a too “hierarchical” approach to incident response management, practitioners have always come forward in great support of NIMS/ICS. While NIMS/ICS has many hierarchical elements, it is in fact geared to scale and combine with non-hierarchical or network elements such as the Emergency Support Functions.

It also defines integrated area commands. So, the larger the scale, scope and duration of an incident, the more NIMS/ICS expands into a matrix-type or hybrid organization. Its advantage is the clear definition of roles and responsibilities and the common doctrine such as unified command among other principles. Over the past 15 years, a large number of practitioners and volunteers have taken the various NIMS courses (including yours truly), and practically responded under the NIMS/ICS structures, so that a nationwide base of trained and experienced responders has emerged that understand the basics of NIMS and can operate on that basis.

Can you comment of the efficacy of having liaison officers (LNO) exchanged between the levels of government? Benefits? Limitations? Challenges?

LNOs, if well-trained and knowledgeable, are one of the most indispensable elements in disaster response. This important role, however, might currently still be much underrated. Besides the incorporation of LNOs in the ICS structure, LNOs when embedded with local responders as delegates from neighboring agencies and jurisdictions including from counties, states, the feds and the military, can make the whole NIMS/ICS really function effectively. As an example, we found a local jurisdiction in immediate need of better search-and-rescue functionality. It was the LNO from the National Guard who was able to request and direct the respective advanced capability to the local responders who had no idea that such a capability even existed, nor how to request it.

Policy-level coordination becomes much more important in multi-jurisdictional responses. What challenges did you observe and are their potential opportunities or solutions that you envision that can be put in place before a disaster occurs?

What we found as most missing (with only very occasional exceptions) is interjurisdictional plan integration. We decided to direct our next study toward this problem. Again, back to Eisenhower’s dictum, while the plans might be worthless, they still indicate whether or not there was integration and coordination of planning. And, again, this particular type of planning is indispensable. As long as jurisdictions do not integrate their planning processes and procedures for disasters of magnitude DC-7 to DC-10 on the Fischer scale, that is, disasters of large scale, large scope and long duration, policy-level coordination will remain spotty and stay on an ad-hoc basis, which will cause unnecessary problems during the real response.

We need to keep in mind that local rationality and very good local reasoning might backfire for local planners in the absence of understanding and accepting regional rationality and reasoning. Take, as an example, a local decision to open transportation in West-to-East direction first to serve immediate local needs, while the regional response requires the opening of North-to-South transportation first. Integrated cross-directional pre-disaster planning exercise might be able to capture such potential problems.

What three to five recommendations do you have for emergency managers that would provide the greatest return on investment when it comes to catastrophic disasters?

Well, from what we have discussed so far, I can recommend without reservation: Conduct the CR22 repeat exercise, which is to include also the state of Alaska, with more realistic assumptions including, first and foremost, the absence of power, drinking water and communications for an extended period of time. Consider more than 100 islands of trapped and isolated populations in the hundreds and thousands in urgent need of food, shelter and medical assistance. Also, consider planning for the grave possibility of twice as many fatalities as assumed in the CR16 exercise. Finally, consider mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people for an extended period of time outside the region.

Particularly plan for scale-down high-tech to low-tech and scale-up low-tech to high-tech response operations and logistics.

Fund and support cross-jurisdictional planning for DC-7 to DC-10 incidents.
Consider the further standardization of NIMS/ICS via a feds-approved suite of information systems (such as WebEOC or equivalents), which implement the NIMS/ICS framework including a library of forms and methods/procedures.

Besides large-scale exercises such as CR16 and CR22, budget and plan for multiple, recurring and smaller functional exercises, which focus on various aspects of the overall response and include cross-jurisdictional coordination.
Note: The five academic reports referred to here can be found here or by email request.

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.