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Level up your training and stop preparing for preparedness drills like Arnold Schwarzenegger did

Military Chinook helicopter close up flying.

Each year during then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term he and his administration, members of law enforcement, Homeland Security, and other federal, state, and local readiness teams practiced a drill dubbed “Golden Guardian.”

The exercises began before Schwarzenegger was governor and planned for a different type of emergency each year. One year might be a terrorist attack in a crowded area like ports or airports. Another year they might test for floods, wildfires, or natural disasters that frequently impact California.

Schwarzenegger, a serial preparer and planner, liked pushing his emergency services teams and took part in the exercises and noticed something amiss about the preparations. In his autobiography Total Recall, he wrote:

One year, I was getting briefed on the next Golden Guardian, which was to focus on a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Southern California. The briefer explained that a California Highway Patrol helicopter was supposed to pick me up and take me to a situation room down in Orange County, where the senior people would converge. 

“The earthquake will happen at five forty-five, and we’ll pick you up at six,” he said. This got me thinking. I asked, “How do you know that the earthquake is going to happen at five forty-five?” 

“That’s the schedule. They want everyone together down south.” 

I didn’t say anything more. I thought, “This is bogus. How do I know we’re really prepared, when we ‘prepare’ for a preparedness drill?” So that morning I got up at four o’clock and called the Highway Patrol. “The earthquake just happened,” I said. “The clock is running on this exercise.” 

You have no idea what an explosion this caused. The CHP and the US Department of Homeland Security freaked out. Everybody had to scramble. They ended up doing a great job, and the exercise exposed some vulnerabilities.

California’s Golden Guardian exercises mirror exercises that happen across every state, including our home here in Indiana, and around the world.

  1. You recognize a potential scenario and draft an exercise to test everyone.
  2. You schedule the exercise to ensure everyone’s available, and ready.
  3. Everyone begins the exercise.

This is an excellent way to train people new to a scenario, such as first-year staff learning an evacuation procedure or firefighters learning animal decontamination. And preparing the public for statewide tornado drills like those coming up in March for Severe Weather Preparedness week ensures the public remains calm. 

During recent active threat drills at a healthcare facility, stakeholders were engaged actors and law enforcement officers armed with brightly-colored weapons. This happened while patients and the public were using the facility, so signage and other pre-emptive alerts were warranted.

But scheduling the precise moment and time a tornado, earthquake, or terrorist attack might occur so everyone can be up, dressed, at the office with a charged phone, and on their second cup of coffee assumes a lot of best-case scenarios.

It’s time to level up disaster preparedness drills and exercises for governments, ASCs, hospitals, and agencies

Every exercise is different and is usually designed to test specific parts of a response. For instance, a fire at a local middle school may result in many tender-age burn victims at the local hospital. A tabletop exercise can simulate what a county hospital might do if and when they run out of beds, the media shows up with cameras, and what information they need to relay to larger trauma centers or burn units. That doesn’t test the emotional response of first responders, staff, or how to manage information to parents.

VPC has designed and conducted hundreds of exercises across the Midwest and beyond, with thousands of professional hours devoted to testing, drilling, and revising plans. Few health departments, hospitals, healthcare facilities, or public or law enforcement agencies have ever requested a surprise drill, however.

Schwarzenegger recalled that after the Golden Guardian drill many top agency leaders were upset at the surprise switch in plans. And because drills cost money and real public emergencies continue to happen, facilities and agencies have a responsibility to be good stewards of the public trust and dollars while remaining prepared for anything and everything.

A better, more challenging way to design drills and exercises could include:

  • Planning “windows” for a “disaster”, like, “Sometime between 4–8am a mock exercise will begin.” 
  • Announcing drills at a more random time and indicating at the time it starts, “This is a drill. It begins now.” In California, they agreed to a 6-hour window for a drill to potentially begin.
  • Involving actors or volunteers to serve as patients, victims, and other stakeholders who are told to relay information or symptoms known only to them. These are not new ideas, but provide realism and are worth the costs.
  • Scaling down to tabletops when necessary and useful, which is also more affordable, and also where agency stakeholders are involved with minimal disruption to other staff or the public.

If you’re ready to scale up the intensity of your disaster preparedness, get started with Vantage Point or contact us

Our team of experienced law enforcement, medical professionals, and first responders can design an exercise that really tests scenarios most likely to occur in your community, healthcare facility, or agency. And we can help you test your teams sustainably, realistically, and safely without making the whole exercise feel like a rehearsal.

Each of VPC exercise projects follows the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) guidelines. These guidelines are utilized to ensure a standardized approach to planning, facilitating, and evaluating an emergency exercise.

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