A FEMA Mobile Emergency Response (MERS) truck is loaded onto a C17 for the Capstone 2014 National Exercise mobilization to Alaska on March 25, 2014. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Jacob Jimenez)

InsideHS: The Ultimate ‘Bad Day’ Practice Session Unfolds at NLE18

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

No matter how good the individual members of a team might be, if they don’t learn to work together, they have little to no chance of succeeding when they called upon to perform. That’s as true for the workplace as it is for any band, orchestra, sports team or assembly of superheroes. Practice is called for and no matter how mundane or monotonous rehearsals, drills and game-plan workouts might be, being familiar with how you play with others can make all the difference in the world.

Such is the vision for one of the most ambitious of “practice sessions” for the homeland security community: the National Level Exercise (NLE). Organized by FEMA and held every two years, the NLE examines “the ability of all levels of government, private industry, and nongovernmental organizations to protect against, respond to, and recover” from a major catastrophic event.

That type of catastrophic event can take any number of shapes and forms. It could be a natural disaster such as a hurricane, an earthquake or wide-scale flood or fire. It could be a series of terrorist attacks occurring in one location or a series of places. It could be a public health emergency such as a flu outbreak or even a cyber event that compromises critical infrastructure that cripples populations from going about their lives. Regardless of what form they take, “catastrophic events” do not discriminate in who they strike as no bit of geography or demography is immune from assault. Sometimes those assaults can be seen coming (e.g. approaching hurricanes, weather systems, etc.), while others can occur out of the blue and be unforeseen (e.g. terrorist attack, earthquake, etc.).

Whenever and wherever those assaults occur, they require leaders, public safety personnel, critical infrastructure owners/operators and more, at all levels, to respond. How that response unfolds can make all the difference in the world in terms of lives and property saved as well as how quickly an affected community can recover.

And testing that response at all levels is the goal of NLE 18 – a two-week-long, national exercise to test how our country’s public, private and NGO sectors respond to a large-scale “bad day.”

Starting this week, NLE18 will begin to play out in multiple states and communities as they all roll out responses to a “major hurricane that makes landfall near Hampton Roads, Virginia, causing severe damage to residences, businesses, and critical infrastructure throughout the Mid-Atlantic.”

Do yourself a favor: Go to a map and point to Hampton, Va. Then take your index finger and trace up the East Coast and see what’s in your path. Besides the major military installations at Norfolk and Quantico, you have major highways, railways and airports, as well as the major cities of Richmond, Washington, Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc., and all of the smaller communities in between that are in its path. This is what NLE18 is going to test and measure for the next two weeks. Besides a huge concentration of people, this affected region possesses critical infrastructures that have tremendous economic implications for not just the mid-Atlantic but the nation as well.

This fictional “bad day” scenario is by no means farfetched or outlandish. It has unfolded before – multiple times, in fact. Ask any mid-Atlantic resident about hurricanes called Sandy, Isabel, Irene, Hugo or Andrew, and undoubtedly you will have some costly and life-changing memories shared with you.

While memories of those storm impacts can linger for generations, new people are always filling the roles of regional and community leaders, public safety personnel and critical infrastructure owners/operators. Hence the need for the various “players” to “suit up,” and get ready for a practice drill of large proportions.

NLE18 will include a host of federal, state and local agencies as well as emergency management and public safety personnel throughout the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

But this is also not just a one-sided public-sector effort as the private sector and NGO communities are also a huge part of the NLE18 effort. By the time the entire exercise is over, NLE organizers anticipate more than 10,000 people taking part in the exercise regionally as well as nationally.

Regardless of what type of NLE18 player is taking part in the exercise, the experience will allow them to see whether or not their plans are truly ready to perform but more importantly identify where they may need to be refined so they are really ready for when the real “game time” starts.

This is why the National Level Exercise should probably be renamed the National Learning Exercise. As proud as any player should be by having a good, if not perfect, practice, any good coach will tell you it’s better to have pushed yourself harder to the breaking point so you know how strong and prepared you really are for the toughest conditions. That’s learning in its purest form.

Practice does that and that’s what readiness for “bad days” in the emergency management community is all about and why NLE18 is so important. It’s about building relationships with players and personnel who wear different uniforms than you, who also have different but essential roles that you need to know about and be prepared to engage if the situations warrant. It’s also learning how to adapt to ever-changing and dynamic conditions such as loss of power or water, unfolding public health emergencies, compromised infrastructure that you cannot use because it’s gone, and so forth. Whoever those players are, they need to be exercised and ready for game time, whenever and wherever it might occur.

NLE18 is the ultimate testing environment to learn how to operate in these conditions. As coaches have long told their players in huddles, on benches and on the sidelines, “You play the way you practice.” We’re about to learn a lot about our readiness because in today’s risk-filled, dynamic world, game time can happen at any time.

HSToday is honored to cover the NLE18 Exercise and will be bringing you exclusive insights and coverage.  Stay tuned for daily updates, interviews and coverage of the lessons learned!

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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