Preparedness for large-scale disasters involves the ability of many organizations – local, regional, national, and sometimes international – to coordinate actions. Large-scale exercises can serve a useful function in practicing this coordination,entifying organizational disconnects, and promoting a shared sense of community among response organizations. However, emergency response exercises involving multiple organizations are challenging to plan and conduct because of organizations’ priorities, agendas, levels of capability, and resource constraints. Different organizations have varying levels of resources available to commit to an exercise, and may have conflicting goals in terms of what they would like to take away from the exercise.
For a successful exercise, it is necessary to find points of agreement among the participant organizations: scope of exercise, degree of participation by each organization, coordination of exercise activities, and evaluation process for lessons learned from the exercise. One U.S. emergency preparedness program addressed these difficulties through the mechanism of a formal, written agreement among the parties, referred to as an “extent-of-play agreement” (XPA).
The Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program The U.S. Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers the Chemical Emergency Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP). The “chemical stockpile” in CSEPP refers to the Army’s stockpile of lethal chemical weapons, including nerve and blister agents. The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity reported in 2013 that, of the eight continental-U.S. facilities housing the stockpile in the 1980s, the stored weapons have been successfully destroyed – under Congressional mandate and international treaty obligation – at six. The two remaining facilities are near Pueblo, Colo. (Pueblo Chemical Depot), and Richmond, Ky. (Blue Grass Chemical Activity, located on Blue Grass Army Depot).
In the Department of Defense Authorization Act (1986, Public Law 99-145, U.S. Code Title 50, Sec. 1521), Congress mandated that the destruction process be conducted with, “maximum protection for the environment, the general public, and the personnel who are involved in the destruction of the lethal chemical agents and munitions.” This led to the formation of a program to enhance emergency preparedness at the Army installations, where the weapons are stored, and in the surrounding civilian communities. With technical assistance from the Army and FEMA, the states, counties, and local communities near these Army installations have built impressive plans and capabilities for response. CSEPP has operated at a mature level for more than 20 years and has conducted well over a hundred full-scale exercises involving Army, federal, state, local, and private agencies and organizations. Each CSEPP exercise takes months of planning and involves hundreds of participants at the federal, state, and local level, plus dozens to hundreds of control and evaluation staff. The scale of CSEPP exercises makes exercise planning both complicated and essential.
Challenges to CSEPP Exercise Planning Because of the scale and the interjurisdictional nature of CSEPP exercises, the level of commitment by each organization is an important variable. In the early years of CSEPP, some exercises fell short of expectations because exercise planning and scenario design occurred before confirming the participating organizations and their extent of participation. It was necessary to continually revise exercise plans and scenario details, sometimes until the day before the exercise, as participant organizations vacillated on the scope of their involvement. In some instances, despite repeated planning meetings, these differences were never resolved. Exercises were plagued by disconnects in player actions and suffered disruptions in the flow of interaction among participants. In addition, they were often heavy with simulations in lieu of actual demonstrations of capability.
When multiple organizations are involved, exercise planners need to know in advance the extent of play for each involved organization: what functions the organization will demonstrate and what resources (personnel, facilities, response assets) it will commit to the exercise. These are important for planning because of: (a) interdependencies among organizations; and (b) planning for exercise control and evaluation.
Interdependencies between response organizations are an issue for any exercise – especially when multiple organizations operate a joint facility. For example, a Joint Information Center, where spokespersons from multiple organizations gather to provide information to the media, works best with participation by all key response organizations. Another example is demonstration of an evacuee shelter in a school. Operation of the shelter requires much more than the cooperation of the school district. A thorough demonstration of this function will include participation by: the local Red Cross chapter to register the evacuees and arrange for supplies; local law enforcement agencies to provide security; and emergency medical services to provide medical care. The absence of any one of these organizations from the exercise will affect the other organizations to some degree because of their inability to interact with the absent organization. Similarly, if an emergency operations center (EOC) in a core jurisdiction does not staff the exercise to demonstrate all functions, it will affect any other playing organization that would feed information to or take direction from that EOC.
Exercise control and evaluation also require a stable basis for planning. It is challenging to field a team of controllers and evaluators appropriate for the scope of an exercise when there are uncertainties about the level of play. A mismatch can mean some controllers and evaluators are not properly prepared for their assignments, some activities are not adequately covered, and/or some controllers and evaluators are not used to the best advantage.
Agreeing on the Extent of Play CSEPP addresses the challenges described above by negotiating formal, detailed XPAs to define the commitment of each jurisdiction in advance. In an XPA, each participant organization outlines its commitments to demonstrate particular functions, facilities, and levels of play. Reaching the point of commitment may involve considerable negotiation. However, once completed and approved at the appropriate level, exercise planners can rely on those commitments in developing the exercise scenario and planning for exercise control and evaluation. CSEPP exercises began to reach their full potential only when they became standard practice to negotiate formal, definitive XPAs with all jurisdictions before commencement of detailed planning. Key elements of CSEPP XPAs and associated negotiations include: organizational objectives; exercise parameters and “ground rules”; executive approval; and advance planning.
1. Organizational Objectives – Organized by jurisdiction, CSEPP XPAs outline each jurisdiction’s commitment to demonstrate certain broad functions or objectives. Within each function, the XPA includes specific tasks. For example, a jurisdiction may commit to demonstrating public warning, and agree to the following actions: (a) prepare warning messages to be broadcast to the public, including specific instructions; and (b) promptly activate systems to disseminate the messages – for example, radio broadcasts, sirens, text messaging – in a timely fashion. The XPA may go into considerable detail on demonstrating these tasks – for example, activating broadcast systems at the appropriate time, but only broadcasting a test message. The agreement also may address deliberate inaction – for example, in an actual emergency, dispatched vehicles will verbally warn people in remote areas, but not in the exercise.
The objectives and tasks used in CSEPP XPAs come from a standard set whose use is prescribed in CSEPP-specific guidance and is tailored specifically for CSEPP. For non-CSEPP exercises, exercise planners need to determine the desired objectives and levels of demonstration. In general, any set of emergency response functions may be used and the tasks tailored to fit the specific objectives of the exercise. One place to start would be the core capabilities and mission areas outlined in the U.S. Department and Homeland Security’s (DHS) September 2011 National Preparedness Goal.
An XPA must include sufficient detail about the expected play by every organization so that exercise managers can design scenario inputs to meet expectations, and recruit and prepare controllers and evaluators. This means negotiations within and among jurisdictions are necessary to ensure a balance in time, space, activities, and numbers of participants so that each organization can fulfill its individual objectives as well as the overall objectives of the exercise.
2. Exercise Parameters & “Ground Rules” – The core of an XPA is the description of objectives and how exercise participants will demonstrate them. In addition, an XPA can be used to specify various exercise parameters including pre-exercise preparations, agreed simulations, exercise ground rules, evaluation standards, and the roles of controllers and evaluators. Examples include:
- Date and time frame for exercise;
- Participation in exercise design teams, pre-exercise training, and exercise planning activities – including responsibility for developing part of the scenario, delegation of a trusted agent, and deadlines for scenario components to be completed;
- Pre-positioning and set-up – to save time or minimize disruption of normal work, certain responders and other response resources might be pre-positioned before exercise start-up;
- Out-of-sequence demonstrations – for example, setting up a shelter after school hours to avoid interfering with the school day;
- Allowable corrections or “do-overs” – allowing evaluators to correct player errors on the spot, especially for technical functions such as how to operate a piece of monitoring equipment;
- Allowable simulations – for example, whether to activate, simulate, or discreetly test sirens and other public-warning systems;
- Demonstration of functions by talking through a procedure or demonstrating a sample of activities that would be performed (or equipment that would be used) in an actual response – for example, one personnel-decontamination station (rather than the several that would be required by the scenario);
- Evaluator access to particular areas;
- Saving and copying exercise records – the CSEPP general practice is to ensure that exercise-generated records such as emails and news releases are printed or copied specifically for evaluator use; and
- Rules and procedures for adjusting or terminating the exercise if necessary due to hazardous conditions or real-world, emergency response needs.
3. Executive Approval – An XPA must have the unqualified support of the appropriate authorities in each jurisdiction before using the XPA for exercise planning. Most likely, emergency managers will handle the details of drafting and negotiating participation levels and, at the appropriate point, elevate the XPA to the executive level for approval. All participants should be able to depend on the approved and signed document. Generally, each major participating agency should have an executive level approval. For example, if a public health, law enforcement, or environmental agency will have a significant role in the exercise (along with the emergency management agency) an executive of that agency should sign the XPA.
4. Advance Planning – XPAs should be completed well before the planned exercise. Current CSEPP guidance calls for confirmation of exercise dates at least one year in advance, and for negotiations on the XPAs of participating jurisdictions to begin 310 days before the exercise date, be completed 270 days before the exercise date, and be signed no later than 150 days before the exercise date. This schedule ensures commitment to certain demonstration levels before exercise planners invest too much time in developing exercise inputs, logistics, and other planning details. The long period allowed for XPA negotiation reflects program experience and often proves to be worthwhile in the end.
The negotiation of the XPA does not merely serve those who are “running” the exercise; rather, every participant organization benefits. The added certainty means that each organization can be confident of a robust opportunity to test its capabilities.
Applications Beyond CSEPP Pre-exercise agreements on the scope-of-exercise participation and demonstration of particular objectives have long been standard in the Radiological Emergency Preparedness (REP) Program administered by FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for communities near nuclear power plants.
Like CSEPP, REP Program XPAs draw from a standard set of exercise objectives developed specifically for the REP Program, based on criteria in FEMA’s REP Program Manual and a federal guidance document from U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and FEMA, NUREG-0654/FEMA-REP-1, Rev. 1. The REP Program objectives include items specific to radiological emergency response, such as radiological assessment and protective action decisions, dosimetry and exposure control for emergency workers, and administration of potassium iodide tablets, which protect against thyroid exposure. REP Program XPAs address methods of demonstration, which may include discussion, coordination between organizations, decision-making, and physical demonstration of field activities such as radiological monitoring and decontamination.
DHS’s February 2007 Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program guidance recommends the use of XPAs and a variety of exercises for various types of hazards also have adopted XPAs. Two recent examples are the Alaska Shield Exercise Series 2012 and the Evergreen Quake exercise series in the State of Washington. Based on a cold-weather scenario leading to infrastructure and heating problems, the Alaska Shield Exercise Series 2012 employed an XPA form to be signed by each jurisdiction or agency participating, which obligated the organization to designate a point of contact for exercise planning. Participating jurisdictions and agencies also were responsible for local aspects of exercise control and evaluation, described in the Alaska Shield Exercise Series 2012’s scope-of-play agreement:
Participating communities and agencies are responsible for local exercise design and coordination to include: local inject development, arranging for controllers and evaluators, coordinating exercise design with neighboring communities and agencies as needed, attending exercise planning meetings as r