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Thursday, April 14, 2011

This is a Drill, This is a Drill...Until it's Real

I met a friend for wings and beer one night a couple of years ago. I hadn’t seen him since our first years together in J-school, but back then we weren’t exactly buddy-buddy. He was one of my editors and I was an underling, a newbie to the newsroom. I wanted to catch up with him since he was integral to my professional development even though he was younger than me and something of a loose cannon back in school.

He was out of journalism when we met up. Well, that’s an oversimplification. He was working in a less glamorous sector of publishing, but he was trying his hardest to introduce his particular editorial viewpoints in a publication known more for pictures than words.

We hadn’t spoken since he left college prematurely to chase his newspaper muse. Catching up with each other entailed reciting our respective résumés, and mine of course leads to emergency management. I’m getting more and more used to giving people the elevator speech when they ask, “What is emergency management?”

But my friend leapfrogged that whole line of questioning and went straight for the jugular.

“Why do you guys do exercises? What’s the point of a drill? It’s not like a disaster goes according to script,” he said, maybe a little too indignantly for my taste.

I didn’t know enough then to tell him that “drills” and “exercises” are two different things, though closely related. (A “drill” tests a specific function or operation, like we public information officers might conduct a drill to activate our call center. An “exercise,” of which there are various levels of involvement and complexity, essentially tests an entire system to include plans, procedures, and such.)

My own experience in exercises and drills, dating back to my Navy days lo these many years ago and on up to today, taught me that drills and exercises aren't intended to create a stock answer to an emergency. The disaster rarely complies with our wishes and expectations, so that would be a fruitless endeavor.

Besides the benefit of finding weaknesses and strengths in a procedure, I personally believe an exercise’s greatest long-term value is in creating a sort of mental muscle memory. Just like a competition shooter on the range practices trigger discipline so that it becomes habit, or a runner becomes more efficient with time and distance, an exercise that tests a group’s response to an emergency can ingrain in those participants the steps necessary to answer the first critical minutes.

The emergencies I’ve seen and responded to in my five years at the Arizona Division of Emergency Management have usually given us some advance warning: the great winter weather event of 2010, for example, was predicted by every weather forecaster on TV in the days leading up to it. The Schultz Fire north of Flagstaff last June couldn’t have been predicted but the flooding the following month was expected, and the folks in that area planned as best they could to mitigate the effects of the expected monsoon runoff.

Aside from the fact that this division spends every spare moment preparing to respond to disasters – and respond it does with élan – we are still people with very human reactions to stress and danger, and how we individually process this information is unique.

That’s where mental muscle memory comes in handy, especially when confronted with the emergencies that come out of nowhere.

Over three days the first week of March, this division and its many partners had exercised our response to a disaster at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. It was pretty intensive. Many of our plans and protocols got a workout, and we applied our experience and knowledge to create solutions for the problems thrown at us by Mother Nature…and her government partners.

A week later – March 11 – the earthquake and resultant tsunami struck Japan. The news about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the harrowing stories to stabilize the reactors is perhaps the most recognizable and far-reaching story to come from that disaster.

This was a bona fide case of déjà vu. For me, anyways.

For the rest of March, I and the other PIOs here combed news stories for days afterward to compile a resource for our office. We talked to citizens who called us concerned about radioactive fallout. We worked hard with our counterparts in other state agencies to publish the growing levels of iodine-131, and to warn the public of how ill-advised it would be to ingest potassium iodide as a preventative measure. My short-term memory tussled with my long-term memory.

At the crux of that mental argument was that this was Japan’s disaster. It was their earthquake, their tsunami, their reactor failure. How did it become our response?

That last question, of course, is beside the point. It didn’t matter that the emergency took place more than 8,000 miles away (although I don’t understand how a trip to Tokyo involves going through Seattle. I think the curvature of the earth had something to do with it. Maybe my Navy buddies who did navigation can clarify that for me.) It only mattered that our residents wanted answers about how it affected them, even if the effect was so insignificant as to be negligible. And they came to us, for which we are glad.

That’s why we drill and exercise. The next large disaster on the news could involve flooding in a nearby county, a volcano in New Guinea, or a new species of beetle that’s ravaging the world’s coffee bean crops. Some disasters may strike close to home, and some cut close to the bone. Thanks to our consistent exercise and drill schedule, I can lean on my mental muscle memory to help guide me through my response.

1 comment:

Talie said...

You have drills and exercises for the same reasons we in the Amateur Radio Community do. And that is to give us a baseline from which to start that can be modified/adapted to a disaster as needed.
Disasters are always chaotic, but by having drills and exercises we have the ability to move more quickly from chaos to order and the faster we can do that, the more lives we can save.

Keep up the good work!