By DALE CURRIER, manager of emergency management and business continuity planning, and DAVE PAJAK, director of risk management, environmental health and safety, and chief emergency management officer, for Syracuse University
College basketball fans of all stripes nationwide look forward to the annual postseason NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which is held at venues throughout the country. Whether one goes to the game in person or watches on television, what is not seen is the behind-the-scenes planning undertaken by a host college.
Years before a college hosts a tournament, its risk management and athletic management staff start working with their emergency management and response partners, including local and federal law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire and emergency management officials, to begin preparing for the event, including the creation of comprehensive emergency and security plans that meet the detailed criteria set forth by the NCAA.
The hosts for a regional playoff tournament plan extensively so that emergency and security plans work.
One way to prepare is to conduct a tabletop exercise, a training activity that provides an opportunity to test emergency and security plans before a real incident occurs. The participants, including the college and local community personnel previously mentioned, are presented with an emergency scenario to test their decision-making, using the existing plans to respond to the incident.
Syracuse University (SU) hosted the NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Regional Tournament at the Carrier Dome on March 25 through the March 27, 2010. On February 17, 72 people representing 20 city, county, state and federal emergency response agencies, local hospitals, transportation providers and Syracuse University departments gathered for a half-day tabletop training exercise.
The primary purpose of the exercise was to stimulate discussion among the players and participants about specific issues related to a realistic, hypothetical situation that could occur at the Carrier Dome. The exercise also included structured activities for the various groups that were based on the Carrier Dome's emergency and security plans and community response plans, which are designed to guide a multiagency response to an all-hazards incident.
Such an exercise provides a chance for key people, from usher supervisors to executives, to become more familiar with the plans and to work side-by-side in a relatively low-stress environment. Experience during past significant incidents has shown that having such training is beneficial. In addition, tabletop exercises provide a chance to find areas where the plans can be improved and where changes can be made before the tournament.
The SU exercise scenario involved a bomb threat that was called in halfway through the first game of a two-game evening. Four functional groups--law enforcement, medical/emergency medical services, the SU Emergency Operations Center, and Carrier Dome management and operations--were tasked with responding to a threat that had a time limit of only one hour.
The Onondaga County Commissioner of Emergency Management, Peter Alberti, served as the lead exercise facilitator and was assisted by facilitators and evaluators stationed at each of the functional groups. Exercise evaluators and functional-group facilitators were recruited from the local emergency response community thereby providing a high-level evaluation capability, as well as the technical expertise in their respective fields. Additionally, the exercise broadened the group of people the participants got to know face-to-face.
The exercise was designed and facilitated to address three critical objectives directly related to the Carrier Dome Security and Emergency Management Plan. They were:
-- Describe in detail how the Carrier Dome would be evacuated in response to this specific scenario.
-- Describe how evacuees would be medically triaged, if necessary.
-- Demonstrate how pedestrian and vehicular traffic, including incoming ambulances, would be managed during such an incident.
All of the evaluation aspects were cross-referenced to a number of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Exercise Evaluation Guides (EEGs), which linked the university's plans and activities to the same capabilities structure used throughout the Syracuse emergency management and response community.
In short, this was not going to be the same problem-solving and decision-making pace as planning for a winter snowstorm that could be forecasted three to four days in advance.
HOW THE TABLETOP TURNED OUT
Within minutes after the exercise began, a multiagency Unified Command was established in accordance with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS). Senior representatives from the university and local emergency response agencies were provided a focused opportunity for working together, side-by-side, to make strategic and tactical decisions that would directly impact the final outcome of the incident.
Certainly, the better the outcome, the less opportunity that claims would be made for negligence or for failure to properly plan and prepare for the situation.
Because working through real-life emergency and disaster incidents is far more stressful than working through the same scenario in the comfort of a conference center ballroom, the exercise design included four chances to crank up the stress level to a point where players' nerves were stretched beyond the comfort level. At specified points the exercise stopped, groups were given 90 seconds to gather together information on what they had done or were working on, what decisions had been made and what response actions were being taken. Then each group was given 60 seconds to report out to the full group. This activity provided knowledge of the current situation, familiarity with the emergency plans, and individual and group decision-making skills on full public view.
Decisions and actions taken were all posted on a timeline so everyone could see what part of the emergency response others were working on or what they had decided to do when presented with new conditions and information.
The exercise was concluded in just less than two hours, which proved to be sufficient time to work through the scenario in real time according to the scenario timing.
The next step was to analyze all that was said, the actions taken and documented, and the decisions made, in accordance with the established emergency and security plans.
Then 27 emergency management and response agency and SU department representatives met on March 5 to review the overall outcome and discuss what improvements needed to be made-- prior to the tournament as well as more long-term changes--to improve collective response actions.
Emergency plans are the ultimate form of a dynamic, living document. The lessons learned from this exercise are valuable for handling all types of incidents and events at the university, not just at the Carrier Dome or solely for the NCAA Tournament. For example, local hospitals, who were new participants at a university exercise, are working together and with Syracuse University to strengthen their capabilities, response procedures and communications with university groups to better support a mass casualty incident (MCI) that could be initiated from within the Carrier Dome.
While some plans look good on the large scale, often the devil is in the details. And that is precisely what we found in this exercise. Items came up that revealed difficulties based on some nonresponders not understanding terminology associated with the Incident Command System (ICS), which is the vernacular used on a daily basis by emergency responders.
Likewise, it was uncovered that a part-time worker knew the name of the building he was to report to after an evacuation, yet he had never been to it and was not sure where it was located among the 20-plus buildings on the main campus' quad area.
Two examples of what appears to be small issues at face value could have serious consequences during a real event. It was a good example of Pareto's 85-15 principle, where 85 percent of the serious problems are generated from only 15 percent of the items identified for improvement.
As with all exercises, there were follow-up issues to address that were identified and detailed in the After-Action-Report. Some issues received immediate attention, while others are in line for future effort as we move forward with our overall emergency planning and training-program improvements.
Positive findings crossed many functions and organizations. The first item of note is that the new players we brought into the exercise, from internal and external groups, provide an expanded view of the scenario and how it would impact their operations and activities. The same people noted that it was good to have input into the response planning process that they will be expected to carry out. By adding this extra layer of participation, we gained additional commitment to participate in future planning, training and exercise activities.
One of the most important outcomes of this exercise was that so many busy people, from all levels of the emergency response community, came together to make sure every entity was ready. Training and exercising together as a unified community can make all the difference when an emergency occurs.
During the actual NCAA Tournament at the Carrier Dome, there were a few minor surprises, which, thanks to preparation, training and exercising, were handled smoothly. Based upon the collective capabilities, communication, response assets and decision-making, the university was confident about the Carrier Dome's emergency operations, and the result was that the NCAA Regional Tournament at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse was a success.
May 1, 2010
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