THE MAGAZINE

First-Responder Training to Change

By Matthew Harwood

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.
 

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