Planning effective exercises
This material is adapted from ARECC EC003, Learning Unit 7. The learning unit is based in
part on a QST article by George Washburn, WA6YYM, District Emergency Coordinator and
Chief Radio Officer of Santa Clara County, California.
Drills, exercises, tests. By any name, periodic exercises are used to evaluate the effectiveness of training and plans just as classroom tests are used to test the effectiveness of teaching. Exercises are particularly important tools used to measure the readiness of trained organizations such as military units, public safety agencies or ARES/RACES groups. They provide low risk-if not low stress-opportunities for the leadership to determine what works and what needs further development and for participants to sharpen their communication skills. This is why the ARRL strongly recommends participation in its annual Simulated Emergency Test (SET).
However, exercises are only valuable if three conditions are met:
- The goals of the exercise must be clearly articulated.
- The correct type of exercise must be chosen and designed.
- Feedback on exercise performance must be promptly given to all participants. Feedback from all participants is critical to the production of a quality exercise performance report.
To be meaningful, exercises must have clearly defined goals. These may include:
- Introducing new procedures.
- Stressing a particular skill or network element.
- Re-testing some aspect of a prior exercise to measure any improvement in performance.
- End-to-end testing of a network system.
- Total system response to a given situation.
Choosing the Type of Exercise
There are three types of exercises most used by ARES groups: full-scale, tabletop and functional. Which one you choose depends on your goals. Full-scale exercises can help simulate the stresses that occur to network operations during a disaster. Tabletop and Functional exercises are good alternatives to the full-scale exercise for the introduction of new procedures and systems.
Your first few exercises should never be full-scale. Begin with smaller exercises that focus on individual elements of the response plan first. Once each element has been tested, put it all together in a full-scale exercise.
SETs may be full-scale exercises with operators responding to EOCs and field locations. They’re fun, complex and prone to failure, especially when a new procedure or system is introduced. While identifying areas that need improvement is a valuable part of any exercise, it’s equally important that volunteer responders have a positive experience. Consider a full- scale exercise only when individual systems have been adequately tested on a smaller scale.
Tabletop exercises are especially valuable for introducing new procedures or techniques in a classroom setting. Their primary limitation is that fewer participants can be involved.
Tabletop exercises are essentially role-playing meetings. With one person serving as moderator, participants representing various locations or functions review their roles or respond to questions from other participants. No timeline is required although the discussion should follow a typical sequence of events. Tabletops allow the participants the luxury of interrupting the exercise to discuss any aspect of the drill. They are the best way to introduce new procedures because the feedback is immediate and heard by all present. Tabletops should be attended by ARES/RACES leadership personnel who can take the lessons learned back to their membership for training prior to full- scale exercises.
Functional exercises may utilize the same facilities as full-scale drills, whether physical facilities such as EOCs or radio nets are used or not. Most participants perform their typical roles while a smaller group serves as simulators. Functional exercises can also be run with all participants communicating from their homes by simply adopting the roles they would have in a full-scale drill.
Like the tabletop exercise, a net control station can moderate a functional exercise. Functional exercises held on the air can be scaled to allow as many or as few participants as the exercise designers choose but all ARES/RACES personnel can monitor the exercise for its training value and to provide a post-exercise critique.
Consider tabletop or functional exercises as mid-term events to be held prior to the annual full-scale SET. They provide low-stress training opportunities which can be adjusted as they progress, something which is nearly impossible during full-scale exercises.
The success of any exercise is directly related to the amount and quality of planning that goes into it. Keeping in mind the goals of the exercise, a number of exercise design elements need to be considered.
Each simulation needs a starting point, one or more tests or challenges in succession and an established ending point. Think through your simulated situation in detail but don’t forget the goal of your exercise.
This is an example of a complex Full Scale hurricane scenario.
• Declaration of a hurricane warning (starting point)
• Pre-landfall preparation (planning test)
• Evacuation monitoring and reports (network test)
That concludes tonight’s training. Are there any questions, comments or suggested additions to this material?
Thanks, this is (callsign) clear to net control.