Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Exercises—what’s all the fuss about?

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine by CDR Jane Wong, Chief, Exercise Support and Coordination Branch, U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area.

We may believe that exercises allow people to “practice” what they do in real life, learn more about their response partners, and take their procedures on a test run. Generally, that’s what most exercises attempt—to validate a contingency plan and its implementation.

Once this is accomplished, many participants often return to their offices, congratulating each other on a job well done. But this only marks the halfway point of an exercise.

Pictured above: During an exercise, staff must ensure progress through the “planning P,” a visual representation of the Incident Command System planning process.

Mission Accomplished?
To improve preparedness, the lessons learned and best practices must be identified and—most importantly—acted upon. Validating plans, policies, and procedures is not complete if areas of improvement are not then incorporated back into the applicable plans, policies, and procedures.

In a perfect world, this information would always be incorporated into future plans so that others may benefit. Sadly, plans are often left as they are, and great new ideas are known only by those who participated in the exercise.

Redefining “Failure”
There are some who view identification of weaknesses in their plans as failure. If an exercise is undertaken with the goal that no problems should be found, then participants should identify other projects that would be a better use of their resources.

The only exercise that can be considered a failure is one that doesn’t identify opportunities to improve applicable procedures or plans. It is not a failure to stumble over a roadblock. It is a failure to refuse to remove the roadblock and continue to allow people to stumble over it.

Actionable After-Action Reports
Once participants draft the after-action report, they must then develop an improvement plan, which is arguably one of the most important components of the exercise cycle. These actions often involve multiple agencies and should be developed with participation from relevant planning partners to fully capture each agency’s role in the corrective action.

Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something
Most importantly, each and every responsible agency should be identified to ensure completion of the recommended corrective actions. The final data point in the plan is a completion date.

When the plan is followed faithfully, problems are not allowed to fall through the cracks, nor are they identified at subsequent exercises.

For more information:
Full article is available at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/fall2009.

Subscribe online at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/subscribe.asp.