Practice, practice, practice
Since Sept. 11, 2001, tabletop exercises — interagency walk-throughs that take place around a conference table rather than in the field — have become a priority for the New York City police and fire departments, as well as other local, state and federal agencies. There are no deadlines to meet and no lives are at stake — rather, tabletop exercises are a convenient way to get people to discuss and analyze their mutual emergency communications plans.
“The advantage of tabletop exercises is that you can do them at a relatively minimal cost,” said Charles Dowd, commanding officer of the NYPD’s communications division and the city’s 911 emergency call network. “Tabletop exercises allow you to troubleshoot emergency plans and iron out interagency responsibilities without taking officers away from their normal duties, as a large-scale drill would.”
According to Dowd, tabletop exercises were held before 9/11, but their occurrence has increased substantially since then, with one being held every other month, in addition to special field exercises. The endorsement of NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has been a driving force. “This is a clear message from the top that this type of preparation is serious stuff,” Dowd said.
From a first responder perspective, the situation faced on 9/11 was both horrific and utterly unexpected. Consequently, NYC tabletops staged since then have dealt with atypical disaster scenarios.
A case in point: The New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) once held a tabletop exercise on the Guy V. Molinari, the latest addition to the Staten Island Ferry fleet. The setting was appropriate because the tabletop scenario was an explosion aboard a ferry midway between the island and Manhattan during morning rush hour.
On hand to wrestle with the mock disaster — which was made more complicated as time wore on — were representatives of the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board, U.S. Coast Guard and a plethora of city departments. Relying on existing plans, known resources and spontaneous brainstorming, the group had to figure out how to get first responders to the scene, extinguish the fire, remove casualties, inform the public and manage the entire scenario with an eye to citywide security.
When it comes to land mobile radio, tabletop exercises provide valuable hands-on training for NYPD officers in the field because they simulate the ability of users to tap into the region’s six interoperability frequencies and become familiar with them. Such familiarity is of vital importance in an emergency, when there’s no time to ask questions, according to Dowd.
“Actually, our interoperable radio frequencies were available on Sept. 11, but they weren’t utilized because people didn’t know where they were and how to access them,” Dowd said. “Thanks to our current regimen of tabletop and field exercises, this is no longer the case. First responders know where to find the necessary command and interoperable channels on their portables.”
To enhance this familiarity, FDNY crews responding to two-alarm or larger fires automatically are given access to the region’s interoperable radio channels. “They don’t always use them, but police and fire incident commanders know they’re available and consequently will monitor the [inputs and outputs],” Dowd said.
Ron Haraseth, frequency coordinator for APCO, is a strong supporter of tabletop exercises and strategic pre-deployments, and a believer in the technological advantages they offer.
However, Haraseth stressed the need to emphasize the human element when planning a tabletop exercise. “Unless people know how to work together and how to use the resources they’ve got at hand, all the technology in the world won’t make things better,” he said. “That’s why, when it comes to tabletops and planning strategic pre-deployments, it is vital to consider how people react in emergencies and to incorporate this knowledge into your planning process.”
The moral: Tabletop exercises and strategic pre-deployment are valuable weapons against natural and man-made disasters, but only if people involved in emergency planning and response know how to best implement them.
Prone to tornadoes, flooding, and severe winter storms, the state of Wisconsin takes emergency planning very seriously. Heading up its efforts is Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM), a 44-person agency that does everything “from developing emergency response plans, training emergency responders and educating citizens about public safety and responding to actual disasters and emergencies,” said Lori Getter, WEM’s crisis communications manager.
WEM also values tabletop exercises. “We just wrapped up a tabletop that dealt with a statewide flu pandemic,” said Rob Rude, WEM’s director of response and recovery. “Starting with a mock outbreak at a local airport, the participants had to decide how the state would deal with such a crisis, including the problems caused by a lack of manpower due to first responders falling ill.”
To augment its tabletop and field exercises, the state of Wisconsin also strategically pre-deploys emergency resources in key locations to speed response when disaster hits, a strategy that includes sandbags stored in flood-prone areas and agreements with vendors to quickly acquire generators, cots, food, ice and first-aid supplies. As part of its pre-disaster plan, WEM also maintains a portable 80-foot radio tower and mobile command center equipped with a Raytheon JPS ACU-1000 interoperable audio bridge that lets up to 12 incompatible radios and telephones to talk to each other.
“The ACU-1000 allows us to quickly interconnect the vast majority of local and state radio systems at a given location,” Rude said. “We use it regularly for exercises and emergencies.”
Two thousand miles to the south, Mandeville was one of many Louisiana cities brutalized by Hurricane Katrina. But the St. Tammany Parish Fire District (PFD) #4 headquarters in Mandeville was not crippled by the storm, thanks to the strategic pre-deployment plans put in place by the department.
“Before Katrina, I attended a National Fire Academy class in 2004 with officers from Florida who saw the destruction of Homestead, Fla., [by Hurricane Andrew in 1992],” said Fire Chief Merrick Tassin. That disaster underscored the need to include in pre-deployment plans the moving of personnel and equipment to safe areas determined by projected geographical impact from wind and flooding, Tassin said.
Based on the advice from Florida first responders, Tassin and his team developed a pre-deployment strategy to move St. Tammany’s resources to safer areas. “I recalled as many personnel as possible, [and] created three divisions by dividing all the personnel and equipment as equally as possible into three independent units with resources that could sustain them for three days.”
During and after Katrina, the PFD’s three ad hoc divisions kept in touch using the department’s own VHF network and the parish’s 800 MHz system. “Most of the normal lines of communication between agencies were damaged during the storm, and we, along with other agencies, improvised,” Tassin said.
To provide further redundancy, each of the three division chiefs — EMS chief, training chief and Tassin — carried 800 MHz portable radios that allowed them to communicate with each other, the emergency operations center (EOC) and dispatch.
In instances when the fire department’s radio system was down, the PFD communicated with its EOC through Mandeville Police dispatch and other public agencies — again, using VHF and 800 MHz. “As a last resort, if the three division chiefs could not contact our command officer or get to our designated command post … they had the authority to work directly with the fire desk at the EOC,” Tassin said. “The fire desk had both VHF and 800 communications.”
The result: Despite Mandeville being pounded by Katrina, “We sustained no firefighter deaths, injuries or loss of equipment by using this pre-deployment strategy,” Tassin said.