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A high return, low impact, exercise regimen

2 July 2009 17,183 views No Comment

–By Renée Sherrill–

It was Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007, and San Diego County was experiencing the hot, dry conditions associated with the ‘Santa Ana’ high speed winds that blow up from the desert. It was the same week that catastrophic wildfires had hit our county four years earlier, in 2003. I flipped on the news and heard that a fire was burning in the rural northeast county, and two thoughts flashed through my mind almost simultaneously. Will this turn into another catastrophic firestorm? Are the foster children who live and attend school at a complex in this vicinity threatened? My next thoughts were related to the County Health and Human Services Agency’s (HHSA’s) other essential services.

We had faced massive regional wildfires before. We had developed business continuity plans and conducted tabletop exercises, yet we had not undergone functional exercises to identify gaps or inaccurate assumptions. We were currently developing materials to train our managers to conduct these exercises, but we were not scheduled to start the training for two more months. I wondered how our staff would perform under the stress of a real event.

The fire did turn into another catastrophic event. Separate fires soon burned in the south and north coastal county, and at one point the eastern fire threatened to burn all the way to the coast. What we had thought in 2003 was a ‘once in a lifetime’ event had occurred again. We ended up evacuating the foster children and relocating several of our other essential operations, and our staff performed admirably. But this underlined a new reality: catastrophic disasters do happen, and we need to be sure our plans are viable, up-to-date, pertinent to the current business structure, and fresh in the minds of our employees.

After the fires and cleanup activities died down, we resumed our effort with additional zeal and developed a method to efficiently and effectively train managers to conduct business continuity plan functional exercises. The system we ended up creating yielded positive results and a high return on investment:


HHSA is a large, public sector organization with approximately 5,300 employees and multiple, disparate business units that range from health services, to financial aid, to child and adult protective services. It is critical that many of these operations continue with little or no interruption, as County government is legally obligated to provide certain services to the public, and the community depends upon additional services during a disaster. To fully test plans without impacting day-to-day operations, 97 exercises had to be designed and conducted, and only a handful of staff had the requisite experience.


To address these challenges, we developed simple checklists, report templates, and PowerPoint training to allow employees with no experience to effectively design, conduct, participate in, evaluate, and document a functional business continuity exercise. This allowed managers to prepare for and conduct the exercises with little impact on operations.

These tools were available to download from the Web and included:
* Emergency Management 101 PowerPoint Training
* BCP 101 PowerPoint Training
* Exercise Development Checklist
* Exercise Execution Checklist for Managers
* Exercise Execution Checklist for Staff
* Exercise Debrief Guide
* After Action Report Template
* Corrective Action Plan Template.

Exercise objectives

The objectives of the functional exercises included:
* Testing staff’s ability to relocate and resume critical operations from an alternate site
* Identifying gaps in plans and hindrances to continuous service delivery during a disaster
* Identifying measures to improve service delivery
* Increasing staff’s comfort level with continuing essential operations
* Enhancing employee knowledge of overall emergency management in San Diego County
* Providing simple exercise tools that managers can use on an ongoing basis
* Obtaining a positive return on investment.

Pre-exercise preparation

Prior to the exercises, we held a two hour training session for department business continuity plan coordinators and managers to provide an overview of the exercise process and to explain the available resources.

After the training, managers followed a simple checklist to prepare for the exercise and conducted Emergency Management 101 and BCP 101 training with their entire staff. They identified at least one employee from every essential activity to participate in the exercise and test each aspect of operations. They also contacted staff at the alternate facility to coordinate the exercise dates and to confirm specific facility needs that were already documented in their plans. Examples of facility issues included security access to the building, parking, and workspace requirements. Although participants were aware that an exercise was scheduled, managers did not reveal the dates to increase the realism of the exercise.

Exercise activities

On the day of the exercise each manager, using an emergency scenario prepared ahead of time, notified staff that the business continuity plan had been activated. Essential staff then gathered critical items and went to the pre-identified alternate site as if their building had been impacted.

Upon arriving at the alternate site, employees followed the exercise checklist and tested their ability to resume essential operations and to access their electronic systems remotely including e-mail, voicemail, the County network, and critical applications. Staff also tested their internal and external contact information. Several operations that provided direct services to the public designated an employee to interact with the staff in the role of a customer to further enhance realism.

Post-exercise activities

Upon completing the exercise, managers, participants, and their partners from the alternate site identified strengths and areas for improvement for matters such as staffing, technology, relocation procedures, alternate site suitability and logistics, communication, and resources. Each manager completed the fill-in-the-blank After Action Report template to summarize overall results and the Corrective Action Plan template to identify strategies to enhance their plans. Employees were assigned to research and implement these strategies. Managers and participants also shared their experience with the rest of their operational team to promote learning.


All 97 essential operational units tested their capability with a minimal time investment. Informal estimates based on reviews of After Action Plans indicate that exercise time averaged about two hours with four staff for a total of approximately 336 employees of various job classifications. The central development of tools minimized the effort required to develop the exercises and allowed staff to focus a majority of their time on physically relocating, resuming their essential functions, and identifying gaps and solutions in debrief sessions. As a result, the major costs were associated with staff time to attend the training and to participate in the exercise. Costs were also associated with mileage reimbursement for travel to and from the alternate site, although many employees carpooled. Additional costs were incurred to implement strategies that were identified to improve the plans.


The investment of time away from providing core HHSA services yielded significant results. Feedback revealed that managers who initially felt overwhelmed at the thought of conducting an exercise found the tools to be simple, intuitive, and helpful in guiding them through the exercise process. They indicated that the overall exercise experience was very beneficial in strengthening their program’s preparedness.

Overall, the effort was successful:
* 100 percent (97) of operational units with essential activities completed an exercise
* 94 percent of survey respondents felt the exercise was a valuable or very valuable use of staff time
* Entire operations, not just the exercise participants, received training in Emergency Management 101 and BCP 101
* Every operation that completed an exercise completed an After Action Report and Corrective Action Plan to identify strengths and areas needing improvement

The exercise program met all the objectives. The functional exercises provided essential operations, like the County’s emergency shelter for children, the opportunity to identify and solve challenges that could have been problematic in a real emergency. Additionally, the physical relocation to an alternate site helped employees understand their specific role and increased confidence and comfort. These gains will allow employees to focus on their most important responsibility during a disaster – helping the community.


San Diego County experienced two catastrophic wildfires within a period of four years and is at risk for various other disasters as well. The development and implementation of the functional exercise program has resulted in improvements and enhancements to preparedness, and HHSA is in a better position to be ready when the next disaster strikes.

Preparedness has become engrained into daily operations and remains a top priority. The functional exercise program will continue to be a regular test to identify gaps and solutions as changes arise in the population, technology, mandates, and services. It has proven to be a low cost, efficient and effective method to be ready for any disaster, and it continues to yield a high return on investment.

read more at: ContunityCentral