FEMA Region II hosts the National Hurricane Center (NHC) as part of Readiness Day on April 26, 2018. (FEMA/K.C. Wilsey)

InsideHS: Hurricane ‘Cora’ Is Coming, So NLE18 Leans Forward with Information

Day 2 coverage of NLE18 — don’t miss Day 1 and Day 3 coverage of the FEMA National Level Exercise

During an emergency there are always items you think you need, but no resource is probably more important than information. With it, you can make informed decisions. Without it, you’re making guesses in the dark.

And as much as there is information all around us, all too often much it has little to no value in helping us make tough calls in the toughest of circumstances. That’s something the participants in National Level Exercise 18 (NLE18) are grappling with as they literally go through the exercise motions of how they would respond to a fictional hurricane named “Cora” that is sitting off the coast of Florida and is amassing strength. As part of the exercise, the fictional Hurricane Cora is set to land somewhere along the mid-Atlantic in the coming days, where some of the most memorable and costly storms of the past 30 years have come ashore.

On Wednesday, I listened in to FEMA’s first teleconference call with exercise participants. Hosted by FEMA Headquarters and its Regions 3 & 4, the Regional Business Emergency Operations Center (RBEOC) call began to sift through and share the information they had collected so players could get ready to position themselves for whatever Cora might bring with her.

The goal of any such public outreach is to provide as much actionable information as possible. And as much as FEMA leaders were anxious to “TRANSMIT” information to those dialed into the RBEOC call, they were just as anxious to “RECEIVE” details from the callers about what they were seeing, hearing and experiencing. A call such as this was specifically designed to create a two-way conversation and provide situational awareness on anticipated needs and capabilities as well as questions that constituents might have as the fictional storm builds strength and prepares to strike.

Following the fictional weather briefing relaying the increasing strength and probable path of the fictional hurricane, FEMA leaders from Regions 4 and 3 started to relay all of the coordination steps they were taking to keep state, local and tribal government leaders as well as private sector interests in the loop.

For as much as the presenters go through a series of names of who they’ve spoken to and meticulously go through their checklists of where things are at in in terms of power, emergency services, transportation, commodities, etc., you can’t help but feel that the people speaking on the call are probably Gold Medal Olympic jugglers – each trained and well-accustomed to keeping multiple (and often fragile) objects in the air as chaos swirls around them. Even before the fictional “Cora” has come ashore and fictional chaos begins, the amount of details and coordination relayed is as comprehensive as it is exhausting.

Every one of the presenters (jugglers) knew their respective jobs and portfolios, as well as all the objects they needed to keep moving in the air without dropping anything. As attentive as each of them may be to the crystal and rubber balls they are working to keep in the air, you can tell that every one of them is on watch for someone to toss in some other random object that needs to be attended to and kept aloft.

FEMA’s Region III pioneered the RBEOC call three years ago to increase the information-sharing in pre-disaster environments, disaster-response activities and post-disaster recovery operations for the communities and states they support (D.C., West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland).

Those three environments are all very different conditions to keep track of, which is why access to information and sharing it as widely as possible is so critical in the operational life cycle of emergency management. The NLE18 exercise is giving participating emergency managers an opportunity to see if the call, as well as the details they collect and share, is truly as relevant and effective as intended. For each and every player and presenter, it’s all about sharing where things are at that exact moment in time.

By getting access to that information, especially as a storm like “Cora” is making its way up the East Coast, it allows supply chains to begin to readjust their routes, healthcare facilities to move patients to safer areas and public safety and National Guard to pre-deploy disaster response materials and commodities, as well as letting government and public safety leaders start planning for anticipated evacuation routes, emergency shelter operations, etc.

For as costly and catastrophic as a real, as well as fictional, hurricane can be, the advantage it gives to emergency responders of all types and levels is that you know it’s coming days in advance. The advent of weather satellites and multiple other pieces of technology truly do offer a “head’s up” that most catastrophic emergencies will never provide. I guess that is the blessing of a hurricane if there is such a thing, because with such a warning you can see and hear the “game pieces” starting to move throughout the NLE18 game board (the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, D.C., Delaware and Pennsylvania) to be ready for what “Cora” brings.

As often as you hear people say “exercise, exercise, exercise,” during the teleconference you also get a real sense this is not just a going-through-the-motions, box-checking exercise, either. Given what FEMA, DHS, multiple states and millions of citizens and businesses went through with the 2017 hurricane season, they all know all too well how real this all can be.

And exercising how you share the most important of resources – information – is a skill worth refining. Everyone speaking and listening on the call is realistic enough to know that they’re going to have to do it again one day soon, and for real.

So, it’s best to practice well to play well. Game time is coming. Her name is “Cora” and odds are she is not going to play very nice.

And HSToday will share that story and the lessons learned with you in the coming days.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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