Emergency Management: Capabilities for Consideration in Exercise Design

by Stephen Owen, Criminal Justice Chair and Professor, Radford University, E-mail: ssowen@radford.edu

No doubt virtually all readers of this Bulletin have participated in, or are affiliated with agencies that regularly participate in, emergency exercises.  The exercising of emergency plans, and the subsequent after-action reporting, comprise an integral part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) preparedness cycle.  Under this cycle, agencies engage in a continuous process of emergency planning, securing necessary resources to implement plans, training on plans and associated equipment, conducting exercises to test and validate plans, and engaging in exercise evaluation and after-action reporting processes that ultimately lead to plan revisions, starting the cycle anew.[1]

The Department of Homeland Security’s Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) provides guidance on developing exercise scenarios, ranging from low-stress discussion-based tabletop exercises to fast-paced and resource-intense full-scale simulation exercises.[2]  Central to this planning process is the careful consideration of exercise objectives and associated Core Capabilities to be tested (which are categorized under the headings of Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery), as listed in the National Preparedness Goal (For further information on the National Preparedness Goal, Core Capabilities, and other FEMA doctrines, see “A Primer on Emergency Management Resource Doctrine,” also in this issue).[3]  The focus on capabilities is crucial, as a mantra of exercise planning is that exercises are meant to test capabilities and policies, but are not meant to test individual people (and with this comes a recognition that there is no such thing as perfect performance in an exercise, as the focus is always on how existing plans and protocols may be enhanced).

The scenario underlying an exercise is, of course, significant – and should be based on a jurisdiction’s hazard profile[4] - but at the same time, drawing upon the philosophy of all-hazards preparedness, the capabilities included as part of an exercise are transferable across a variety of situations.[5]  I have participated in exercise planning and implementation in areas as diverse as disruptions of critical infrastructure, threats of violence, hazardous materials, and biosafety, and in each, the capabilities tested clearly transcend the specifics of the scenario.  To that end, I would like to suggest six areas representing capabilities that can incorporated (among others) into many different types of exercises and across a variety of scenarios, and which may be useful to assess in a simulated environment, before an incident occurs.  Each is associated with a Core Capability from the National Preparedness Goal, and the discussions contain links to supplemental resources.

The Public Information Officer (PIO) role

Some exercises will already include this incident command system position as a key player, but if not, it is valuable to incorporate.  This corresponds to the “Public Information and Warning” response area Core Capability under the National Preparedness Goal.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Program notes that “Communication needs to have a permanent seat at the table where key crisis response decisions are made,”[6] in order to ensure that appropriate information is released to the public and media, and at the appropriate time. 

There are a number of ways in which the PIO role can be included in an exercise.  Certainly, one is to staff the position as part of the incident command system in the incident command post, to assess the protocols that are in place by which media briefings and other public information dissemination are coordinated.  Beyond this, however, exercises can also include persons who by virtue of their position may have to serve as PIO or as an agency or subject-area expert spokesperson for an incident (recognizing that this may go beyond those officially designated as media relations staff, including others deemed appropriate to convey status information and updates), having them draft statements that would be presented to the media or other public outlets.[7]

In fact, whether a tabletop exercise or a full-scale exercise, it can be useful to set up an actual briefing room, preferably with cameras and persons playing the role of the media, to ascertain how public information would best be delivered.  As crisis situations generate considerable public and media scrutiny, the opportunity to receive and respond to questions that the media would likely ask, in a simulated setting, can provide for useful insights in developing a media and public information plan.  Depending on the sensitivity of the exercise scenario, there are multiple options for persons who can simulate media roles, ranging from representatives of the agency conducting the exercise, to members of the public relations or communication staff who are not otherwise participating in the exercise, to senior- or graduate-level journalism students from a local college or university.[8]

The Role of Social Media

Social media is an ever present phenomenon, and one which cannot be disregarded.  Social media can be included as an aspect of a larger public information strategy, thus falling under the “Public Information and Warning” response area Core Capability under the National Preparedness Goal.  Social media offers citizen journalists a platform for sharing their thoughts, provides emergency managers with another venue for providing safety information and incident updates to the public, and allows volunteer organizations active in disaster (VOAD’s) and less-formal groups the ability to promote or coordinate assistance activities (of which the incident commander is hopefully aware).  It can also be a useful tool under the “Situational Awareness” response area Core Capability, as valuable information can be gathered by observing social media posts (including the identification of areas or persons with emergent needs that have not yet been addressed by responders), which can in turn signal the need for additional response priorities, public updates, or corrections of misinformation.[9]

In a fully-operational emergency operations center, there are software programs that can aid in monitoring social media posts for key words and hashtags related to an incident.  For example, on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, a crane working on the construction of a new bridge fell onto the existing Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River north of New York City.  There were no fatalities or major injuries, but the bridge, which accommodates 138,000 vehicles per day, was closed for several hours and there were associated traffic backups.[10]  Utilizing social media analytics, I was able to determine that from 11:00am to 8:00pm on July 19, 2016, there were over 14,000 Twitter and RSS feeds that mentioned the incident, reaching over 107,000,000 persons.  If one were to monitor posts in real-time during the incident, it could potentially provide useful data about traffic patterns, whether emergency messages or incident updates were or were not being received by the public, which social media venues would best disseminate necessary messages, and more.

Social media can be incorporated in exercise design by asking participants to make (simulated, off-line) social media posts relevant to the scenario and by asking participants to respond to a hypothetical set of posts.  These hypothetical posts could include (depending on the scenario) items such as public confusion or inaccurate understandings about the incident, public identification of facts unknown to the command staff, identification of self-dispatched volunteer efforts, tracking whether the desired public information messages have been received, and other communications.  A review of past social media posts made about actual incidents can be useful in structuring this aspect of an exercise.

Continuity of Operations

Continuity of operations planning (COOP) prepares for disruption of an agency’s mission-essential functions.  For instance, if key personnel, facilities, information, and communications are unavailable, how would an agency continue to achieve its mission?[11] As such, there is the potential for two separate plans and processes to have to be implemented nearly simultaneously – one for maintaining continuity through COOP and one for resolving an incident through an incident action plan.  As an example, if a tornado damaged public safety facilities (among other damage to the locality), one task would be to respond to the tornado, generally, with the usual focus on life safety, incident stabilization, and property preservation; another task would be continuity-related, to ensure that public safety agencies could maintain their mission-essential functions, such as through moving to alternate facilities, operating remotely away from a facility, or other such arrangements.  COOP is addressed under the protection area of the National Preparedness Goal, through the “Planning” Core Capability.   

If a scenario allows, COOP can be incorporated as part of the exercise design – for instance, through establishing as one element of the incident an unavailability of personnel, facilities, information resources (e.g., critical databases, client information, agency records and files, etc.), or the communication equipment on which an agency relies.  This poses a dual challenge of recovering agency functions while also responding to the larger scenario (indeed, recovering agency functions may be necessary to fully respond to the larger scenario).  Alternatively, an exercise could be structured solely surrounding COOP, to determine whether continuity plans are sufficient to ensure continued agency operations in the event of significant disruptions. 

Agency and Local Executives

While this varies based on the agency conducting the exercise, the jurisdiction in which it is set, and the formal reporting lines and organizational cultures of those involved, one consideration is the extent to which agency or local executives are involved in the exercise.  Here, executives may be taken to mean the leaders of an agency (e.g. agency heads and chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief financial officers, etc.) or the leaders of the jurisdiction in which the exercise is set (e.g., local elected officials, town councils, city or county managers, etc.).

State and local jurisdictions may sponsor a FEMA-recognized course called “Incident Command System Overview for Executives and Senior Officials (ICS-402),” intended as a brief but high-level overview of ICS and incident management.[12]  This can provide executives (particularly those who are not otherwise associated with public safety occupations) with a rudimentary understanding of emergency operations.  Having the opportunity to either observe or actively participate in an exercise (e.g., through an emergency operations center or a broader multiagency coordination system) can further enhance that understanding and help to clarify roles that would be played during an actual incident.  While likely not appropriate for every exercise, it is important to consider readiness of executives as a key component of success in incident management. 

This perhaps takes on an enhanced importance with the forthcoming revision of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).  The draft of NIMS revisions (not yet finally approved as of this writing) includes a more precisely drawn distinction between the Incident Command System (ICS), the Center Management System (CMS, which includes emergency operations centers and other structures), and multi-agency coordination (MAC) groups.[13]   I have found the revised NIMS to clarify some of these structures, but it also essential for them to be tested in an exercise setting.

Companion Animals

The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (more generally known as the PETS Act) requires that emergency planning take into consideration the needs of companion animals and service animals during disaster preparedness, response, and recovery activities.[14]  The ready.gov website provides information to the public about pet preparedness.[15]  A recent study found that “[t]hough mandated by law, companion animal emergency planning varies quite widely among states, with some producing mature, complex plans and others producing very rudimentary plans, or no plans at all.”[16]      

In emphasizing the importance of responding to the whole community, the National Preparedness Goal identifies the needs of “owners of animals including household pets and service animals,”[17] and the response area Core Capability of “Critical Transportation” includes “the evacuation of people and animals.”[18]  While not addressed by the PETS Act, plans related to livestock in rural areas may also be considered.

As an illustration, in 2005 (though prior to the PETS Act), a train accident in Graniteville, South Carolina resulted in a chlorine spill and the death of nine persons.  Estimates indicate that approximately 4,000 persons had to evacuate their homes, in some cases for up to two weeks.  Some residents who evacuated did not realize how long the evacuation would last, and left their pets at home.  Animal control and other responders later entered evacuated areas to provide food for pets that had been left behind.  In addition, they worked to retrieve over 100 animals and to coordinate with veterinarians to examine the animals prior to their reunification with their owners.[19]

Exercising PETS Act provisions is an area that requires collaboration of the veterinary and animal welfare community, both to aid in the development of policy and its implementation.[20]  Existing plans are a useful starting point; while not applicable to all scenarios, any that potentially require evacuation or sheltering would be well advised to include companion animal planning as a component. 


The National Preparedness Goal emphasizes the significance of cybersecurity, noting that planning “must also consider integrating cyber preparedness throughout core capabilities in every mission area.”[21]  The protection area Core Capability of “Cybersecurity” notes the needs for advance preparations to ensure that cybersecurity protections are in place, and the response area Core Capability of “Infrastructure Systems” addresses responses to the impacts resulting from cybersecurity threats.  This issue is significant enough that it was the subject of FEMA’s 2012 national exercise,[22] which is readily adaptable to local settings. 

Cybersecurity issues can be manifest in two ways.  First, a cyber-attack is a threat in its own right, which would have numerous cascading effects on other areas; exercising a cyber-attack scenario would test response capabilities for the cyber threat, as well as the identification of, and response to, its impacts.  Second, other incidents may in turn damage or threaten computer or network infrastructure, leading to cyber impacts that must be considered as part of a response.  The latter situation could be incorporated into a variety of scenarios, and doing so would require collaboration with information technology staff – important partners who should be included in emergency planning and exercises, given the reality of cyber threats that could occur.


The above discussion offers six areas that could be incorporated into regularly scheduled exercises, spanning multiple potential scenarios and exercise types.  Doing so will help to build capabilities in these important areas, while also addressing agency-specific exercise objectives and other capabilities being tested in a scenario.          

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Emergency Management Planning Training Tip

In this and future issues, I will offer a suggestion for an emergency management-related online training resource.  These are not “sponsored” recommendations or official “endorsements,” but rather are those that I have found to provide potentially interesting or useful content.

As we are in the season of summer storms, it is worth noting that weather-related causes are a primary source of power outages, sometimes due to downed electrical lines.[23]   Downed power lines are a significant cause of workplace electrical fatalities, accounting for over 40% of electrical fatalities in the time period from 2003 to 2010.  In that same time period, “contact with wiring, transformers, and other electrical components” accounted for 35% of workplace electrical injuries.[24]

With this in mind, and knowing that public safety responders may be first on the scene at downed power lines (or other electrical emergencies), knowledge of electrical safety is a valuable asset.  The Vermont Division of Fire Safety offers a free course titled “Responding to Utility Emergencies,” with two separate offerings – one focused on fire and rescue responders and another focused on law enforcement responders.  The course has been described as an “awareness” level training, analogous in intent to first responder awareness training for hazardous materials incidents (but here focusing on electrical safety).

The link for the course is: https://fire-safety-vermont.rtueonline.com.



[1] Federal Emergency Management Agency.  (2016, February).  Preparedness cycle.  Available: https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/images/114295.

[2] Department of Homeland Security. (2013, April). Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP).  Washington, DC: Author.  Available: http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1914-25045-8890/hseep_apr13_.pdf.

[3] Department of Homeland Security.  (2015, September). National Preparedness Goal (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.  Available: http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1443799615171-2aae90be55041740f97e8532fc680d40/National_Preparedness_Goal_2nd_Edition.pdf.


[4] For instance, derived from the local Hazard Mitigation Plan and/or from a Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) process; for details about the latter, see Department of Homeland Security. (2013, August). Threat and hazard identification and risk assessment guide: Comprehensive preparedness guide (CPG) 201 (2nd ed.).  Washington, DC: Author.  Available: http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/8ca0a9e54dc8b037a55b402b2a269e94/CPG201_htirag_2nd_edition.pdf.

[5] For instance, a hazardous materials scenario that requires evacuation would utilize the “Critical Transportation” response area Core Capability in the National Preparedness Goal.  This same Core Capability would apply to other scenarios that also require rapid evacuation in response to a threat, such as flooding, a bomb threat, impending wildfire, etc.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Crisis and emergency risk communication. Atlanta, GA: Author (quotation from page 92).  Available: https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/resources/pdf/cerc_2014edition.pdf.

[7] Chapter 5 of the above document provides useful perspectives for serving as an effective spokesperson, and chapter 6 provides useful perspectives on how to work with the media in crisis situations.

[8] When under the supervision of a faculty member well versed in media issues and crisis communication, I have found advanced mass communication students to take such roles very seriously and to provide useful perspectives.

[9] For useful overviews, see:  White, C. M. (2012). Social media, crisis communication, and emergency management: Leveraging Web 2.0 technologies.  Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; and Crowe, A. (2012). Disasters 2.0: The application of social media systems for modern emergency management.  Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

[10] See Rosenberg, E. (2016, July 19). ‘Nothing short of a miracle’: No serious injuries in Tappan Zee crane collapse.  New York Times.  Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/20/nyregion/crane-collapse-tappan-zee-bridge.html.

[11] For a discussion on continuity planning related to law enforcement agencies, see Owen, S., & Burke, T. (2013, July/August). Continuity of operations planning: Practical considerations for law enforcement. Police and Security News, pp. 36-41.  Available: http://policeandsecuritynews.com/imgs/archives/2013/digital/JulyAug2013.pdf.

[12] For more details on course content, see Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2016). Emergency Management Institute fiscal year 2016 training catalog: Train, exercise, educate.  Washington, DC: Author (quotation from page 175).  Available: https://training.fema.gov/emicourses/docs/fy16%20catalog.pdf.  

[13] The draft of the revised NIMS document is available from FEMA at: http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1467113975990-09cb03e2669b06b91a9a25cc5f97bc46/NE_DRAFT_NIMS_20160407.pdf.

[14] For additional information, see the following document; I recommend doing a keyword search for “pets” to locate discussions pertinent to this topic.  Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2016, January). Public assistance program and policy guide. Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1456167739485-75a028890345c6921d8d6ae473fbc8b3/PA_Program_and_Policy_Guide_2-21-2016_Fixes.pdf.

[15] “Pet and Animal Emergency Planning,” at https://www.ready.gov/animals.

[16] Austin, J. J. (2014). Shelter from the storm: Companion animal planning in nine states. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 40, 185-210 (quotation from page 207).

[17] Department of Homeland Security, National Preparedness Goal, page 2.

[18] Department of Homeland Security, National Preparedness Goal, page 14.

[19] Two reports related to this incident are Mitchell, J. T., et al. (2005). Evacuation behavior in response to the Graniteville, South Carolina, Chlorine Spill [Quick Response Research Report 178].  Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center; and Zilizi, K. (2005, January 10). Many pets found safe after spill.  Augusta Chronicle.  Available: http://old.chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2005/01/10/met_439540.shtml.

[20] The American Veterinary Medical Association hosts a webpage titled “Disaster Preparedness for Veterinarians,” which contains useful resources; it is available at https://www.avma.org/kb/resources/reference/disaster/pages/default.aspx.

[21] Department of Homeland Security, National Preparedness Goal, page 5.

[22] Exercise materials are available at https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/26845.

[23] Data on outage trends are available in Campbell, R. J. (2012, August 28). Weather-related power outages and electric system resiliency. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.  Available: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42696.pdf.

[24] Campbell, R. B., & Dini, D. A. (2015, March). Occupational injuries from electrical shock and arc flash events. Quincy, MA: The Fire Protection Research Foundation (quotation from page iv).  Available: http://www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/research-reports/electrical-safety/other/occupational-injuries-from-electrical-shock-and-arc-flash-events.