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First-Responder Training to Change

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the process of implementing a new model for its National Exercise Program (NEP) to create a system where the nation’s first responders exercise more frequently in scenarios of rising complexity that steadily involve more levels of government and civil society. The program would culminate in an exercise that tests national capabilities during a large-scale catastrophe.

The new model, known as the progressive cycle, will occur in two-year intervals that end with a National Level Exercise that tests national response capabilities and involves senior-level participation from federal officials. The first interval began in January of this year.

State, local, territorial, and tribal governments participate in the NEP exercises featuring varying threats with increasing degrees of complexity. The exercises are linked to common objectives determined by the Homeland Security Council Principals Committee before each cycle begins.

FEMA’s decision to make the NEP more collaborative is important to state and local emergency managers and first responders. In the past, FEMA performed Top Officials (TOPOFF) exercises to identify vulnerabilities in the nation’s domestic preparedness and incident management architecture. These exercises, however, didn’t identify the nation’s vulnerabilities, so much as the federal government’s, explains John Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and current president of the National Emergency Managers Association.

“I haven’t found a state yet that said they had a high learning experience from the TOPOFF series,” he says. There was, however, “a lot of...concern that federal agencies felt like they would come in and take charge.”

FEMA, according to Jon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, has moved away from a federal-centric model in favor of developing and financing baseline capabilities for state and local first responders that will be critical during events that require a national response made up of state and local stakeholders.

This evolution is an acknowledgement from FEMA that it does not have the manpower and resources to respond effectively and efficiently during a national catastrophe that cripples vast portions of the country. What it can do, says Monken, is “push down these resources to the local level, allow them to develop [them], and create ways for them to mutually support each other.”

The objective is to have state and local entities that can act independently or with the federal government. Thus, they will be trained to a take care of themselves when smaller disasters strike, like the Joplin tornado of 2011, and also trained to integrate into a national response framework when something catastrophic happens, like this fall’s Superstorm Sandy along the Northeast Coast.

“It comes down to having an effective balance,” says Monken.

The revised NEP, according to a FEMA spokesperson not cleared to speak to media, will allow the agency to evaluate these stakeholders’ adherence to baseline capabilities and how they integrate into a unified response while identifying vulnerabilities and mitigating them.

One concern voiced about the newly revised NEP, however, is the absence of a true testing component to ensure that first responders and emergency managers are competent in those baseline capabilities and have learned the necessary lessons identified by previous exercises.

This has been a longstanding problem for FEMA, says Matt Mayer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the former acting executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness at the agency during the Bush administration. “Tons and tons of time and money, mostly contractor money, is put into doing the [TOPOFF] exercise [every two years] but very little time and money is put into the after-action component of making sure what was not working gets fixed,” he says.

Mayer calls this symbolic exercising, because the competency of first responders is not tested after an exercise to ensure that they learned what they were supposed to learn during the exercise.

It is not clear whether this issue will be addressed. According to the March 2011 outline of the revised NEP, FEMA, in coordination with exercise stakeholders, will devise an evaluation program.

That, however, hasn’t happened yet. Emergency managers have focused on easily quantifiable metrics such as how many people were trained or how much money was spent but that doesn’t measure the quality of the training or the results in terms of preparedness, Mayer notes.

Mayer would like to see FEMA inject accountability into the NEP by having evaluators test first responders against baseline capabilities and exercise goals, grade them, and then either pass them or fail them.

“It’s no different than firefighters [having] to pass the physical endurance test to become a firefighter,” he said. “Why would we not apply the same rigor to the National Exercise Program?”

But he also acknowledges that there are local and regional issues that might not lend themselves to national standards.

Deciding what set of standards to test against may not be simple.