Exercises play a vital role in preparing agencies to mitigate, respond to, and recover from all types of threats and hazards. These include infectious disease outbreaks, hurricanes, earthquakes and cyberattacks. Federal, state, local, tribal and territorial agencies routinely conduct exercises to provide a safe, low-risk environment for their personnel and community stakeholders to assess and validate existing disaster response plans, policies and procedures, or, in some instances, to develop plans, policies and procedures in response to new threats or hazards. Well-designed exercises enable participants to identify and address capability gaps and other areas for improvement before real-world disasters strike.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies continue to rely on their exercise programs to prepare for and respond to the ever-evolving challenges of COVID-19 while also maintaining their preparedness for other threats and hazards. However, conducting exercises during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven challenging. Many jurisdictions have had to restrict the size of gatherings to lower the risk of disease spread, thereby limiting the number of people that can attend exercises in person. Furthermore, personnel who would normally participate in exercises are often busy supporting pandemic response operations, particularly within emergency management and public health agencies. At the state and local levels, agencies are also experiencing budget cuts, resulting in lower funding levels for exercise programs.

Faced with these constraints, agencies have had to think creatively about how to maximize the reach and benefit of their exercises. Many agencies are conducting fewer operations-based exercises, which include real-time mobilization of personnel and resources, in favor of more discussion-based exercises focused on strategic- and policy-oriented issues. A key benefit of discussion-based exercises is that they can be conducted virtually, enabling some or all of the participants to participate from the safety of dispersed worksites.

Given the demanding, time-consuming nature of COVID-19 response operations, agencies are also opting to shorten the duration of their exercises. Rather than designing full-day or half-day exercises, agencies are designing two- to three-hour-long exercises focused on a limited number of specific topics. Shorter, targeted exercises mean that agencies can more quickly develop after-action reports and identify corrective actions to address any identified gaps or challenges. The sooner agencies identify corrective actions, the sooner they can begin taking steps to implement those actions.

By opting for shorter, virtual, discussion-based exercises, many agencies have been able to sustain their exercise programs and maintain their preparedness for other potential threats and hazards during the COVID-19 pandemic. This new format is cost effective and offers flexibility that may continue to appeal to exercise planners and participants after the pandemic.

COVID After Action Series

Tschuna Patterson Associate Research Analyst in CNA’s Institute for Public Research.