In March 2006, the Center for Special Operations Training will conduct a functional exercise in a five-county region in Pennsylvania. The exercise will consist of four county Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) and four hospital EOCs with various incidents testing the level of preparedness and capability of each EOC. I had the opportunity to observe how an exercise of this scale is prepared and the extraordinary amount of time and commitment it requires for those participating.
During a controller pre-planning meeting, I had an informal discussion where I asked if there was documented research showing how emergency managers and other decision makers reacted when a significant amount of stress was placed upon them. I continue to remain curious about how people think, react, and delegate authority during a disaster. It always seems the topic of "what went wrong" occurs after the incident, as if this is time to place blame on someone or some agency.
With the dedicated help from highly knowledgeable professionals at the Center for Special Operations Training, our attention now focuses on a possible formal study using the Erie Functional Exercise as the framework for our research. Needless to say, this is an exciting time--to be able to track and record verbal and non-verbal behaviors of emergency managers during a functional exercise. Below is an excerpt from the controller pre-planning meeting announcing why this topic is worthy of study.
As professionals, the goal of a functional exercise is to understand and recognize the level of capability in response to a mass casualty event. For some, a functional exercise is a partial look into the future which allows all participants to assess, recognize and implement ways for improvement. The reality is, the days of algorithm decision making, or following a set of protocols, can only help those involved in a disaster to a certain point. Today's disaster management focuses on how and why we do things and what could be used as the best decision making practices (Ormrod, 2004, p. 116).
An important consideration when disaster planning is most will agree that in the event of a disaster, people are going to get hurt (Schnepp, 2004, p. 44). We can have all of the resources possible, but it does not diminish the risk of casualty. While we can never predict a disaster, planning for any type of exercise allows those involved to evaluate decisions, assess why they were made, and work together to solve problems.
Crash Course in Behaviorism
Robert M. Hutchins (1950), a past President of the University of Chicago, wrote a position paper describing the ideal aspect of a college environment. He stated, "A college should not seek to adjust its students to their environment, because it cannot tell what their environment will be" (¶ 6). In short, we must continually adapt to our current environment. It is how we react in a given situation that defines us, especially in times of crisis.
During a functional exercise, evaluators are recognizing not only the specific protocols, but how participants think and learn. Learning is defined as a change in behavior (Ormrod, 2004, p. 3). Cognitive thinking focuses on the behavioral outcomes of learning (Ormrod, 2004, p. 3). The goal of a functional exercise should not only be to evaluate resource management, but to rigorously assess those making decisions and probe further as to why those decisions are being made. We need to figure out why participants react the way they do not after the incident, but during the exercise. Hutchins stated with regard to students and college, "...certainly our object must not be merely to prepare students for any possible environment, but also to induce them to try and get a better one" (¶ 7). In reference to incident planning, not only should we prepare for the incident, but we must also prepare how to actively handle and adapt to the incident.