Experiences Gained for Emergency Managers: Facilitate Training at the Federal, State, Regional Levels

Disaster Training

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Trained staff are essential to making it through the initial 72-hour push after a disaster, when localities often have to go it alone. They also ensure that the proper resources are attained in the weeks and months after a disaster and that the community is fully reimbursed for disaster recovery expenses. As the emergency manager, facilitating training among key staff and all response and recovery stakeholders in the community can ensure that you’ve got a support staff that will carry out successful operations from day one through full long-term recovery.

“The best work you can do in an emergency happens before the emergency,” says William Whitson, Managing Director of Local Government Visions, LLC and former assistant city manager of Port Orange, Florida. “The hardest, most important, most difficult job is to be prepared.”

Generally, training should start broad with FEMA’s base level courses, and zero-in on task and disaster specific training offered at the state and regional levels. Tabletop exercises are also integral in building the “muscle memory” that emergency managers agree can only be developed through practice.

When a disaster hits, response and recovery efforts should be second nature – first responders and disaster professionals must be able to operate under stress and work through post-disaster chaos. The only way to achieve this is through training courses, exercises and drills.

Start with the Basics

Public information officers sit at tables watching a presentation and taking notes.

FEMA public information officers attend a classroom training session at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. Photo provided courtesy of FEMA.

Although FEMA training courses may not address training needs specific to your state or local community, they provide a broad overview of federal disaster processes and doctrines. These courses are essential in building a primer of base knowledge necessary to understand state, regional and local policies, ordinances and codes.

FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, offers training for a broad, national audience – courses are general enough to meet the needs of New York, California, and everywhere in between. EMI offers in person and online courses focusing on the National Response Framework (NRF), National Incident Management System (NIMS) and National Preparedness Guidelines (NPG).

“You need some combination of federally distributed information and training, supplemented by the state,” says Justin Fordice, Washington State training program supervisor for the Emergency Management division. “The foundation is federally-based, with the NRF as a starting point.”

Emergency managers should encourage as many staff members as possible to take FEMA’s baseline courses. Whitson, for example, insists that all staff members take FEMA 101, “Preparing for Disaster Operations: FEMA,” and FEMA 102, “Preparing for Operations: FEMA Response Partners,” to garner a basic understanding of the “environment and the expectations.” See a full list of introductory FEMA courses.

“No matter what the topic, FEMA has a good training curriculum,” says Fordice. “It has been developed by very knowledgeable and experienced professionals at EMI. It also meets all of the legal and regulatory standards you have to maintain, such as ADA standards.”

EMI course offerings cover the entire scope of natural disaster planning, response and recovery activities, ranging from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), to environmental health training in emergency response, to ArcGIS for Emergency Managers, and much more. Keep in mind that these course offerings are national in scope, and emergency managers should encourage or require staff to follow-up with state or county level coursework and tabletop training exercises to fully prepare for natural disasters.

Refine Training with Regional and State Courses

“FEMA courses are important and you need to do them, but they are only one- to two-thirds of what a local community needs,” says Fordice. “The rest is provided by the state.”

State-level training supports FEMA coursework by offering options that cover local policies, ordinances and codes. State level training is EMI-developed and state delivered, and can be offered as “G series courses,” which are administered statewide, or as “L series courses” administered at the regional level. “If you take it at as a regional L series course, you get a more customized version,” Fordice notes.

In the state of Montana for example, Montana Disaster & Emergency Services provides training for counties on an ongoing basis, as well as after a disaster hits. Training is provided statewide and across the state’s four regional locations, and geared to stakeholders like county commissioners, public works directors, first responders and procurement and accounting staff.

“It’s an ongoing process,” says Montana Disaster & Emergency Services Training Manager Marshall Ross. “In some counties, Emergency Management is a half or quarter-time employee. We have to develop a customized approach for them. We’ll sit down with them and go through the FEMA Public Assistance Guide.”

Regardless of the size or capacity of your local emergency management agency, training should be a core component of your disaster preparedness efforts. If nothing else, require disaster stakeholders in your community to enroll in FEMA’s online Independent Study (IS) courses to familiarize themselves with their role.

Use FEMA’s searchable course schedule catalogue to find upcoming training offerings in your state.

Train to your Role

Healthcare professionals in hazmat suits practice decontaminating a simulated patient inside a training tent.

Healthcare professionals decontaminate a simulated patient during the Integrated Capstone Event (ICE) at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, AL. Approximately 80 healthcare professionals and emergency responders, representing eight of the 13 regional coalitions trained at the CDP’s Noble Training Facility and the Advanced Responder Training Complex. Photo provided courtesy of FEMA.

Most role-specific training occurs at the state and regional level, but can also be completed through FEMA’s Independent Study program if state course options for a specific role are limited.

“People really need to look at their roles and self-define what training they need,” says Roger Jolliff, director of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency. “FEMA independent study training is key. It’s inexpensive, but it’s very effective and convenient to take, plus it provides excellent information.”

Jolliff is a strong proponent of “casting a wide net” when it comes to disaster training, both in the diversity of local stakeholders trained and the depth of training they receive. This includes local departments, in addition to local appointed and elected officials, as well as their direct reports.

Jolliff also advises that anyone managing a department at the local level, such as a public works or public health director, take continuity of operations (COOP) planning courses. “If you’re running a department, you need to know what it’s going to take should your personnel be severely impacted,” Jolliff says.

Likewise, emergency managers should work with local departments to define exactly what the department’s role will be in a disaster and how to prepare for their responsibilities through training.

“Break down your city’s staff based on everyone’s role in a disaster,” Whitson says. “Set up your plans, assign tasks and then begin training personnel for those roles.”

During a disaster, city staff from all departments will have to apply their everyday skills to new tasks required to fulfill their disaster role. Although already professionally trained to perform these tasks in their daily work, emergency managers must stress the importance of being able to apply these skills to a disaster situation — when staff are under duress and often dealing with personal losses.

Fire and police, for example, should be trained in search and rescue and damage assessment, while public works should focus on debris removal and critical infrastructure. Likewise, parks and recreation must be prepared to set up shelters and assist displaced residences, and accounting should be well-versed in FEMA requirements for purchasing, payroll and documentation, and the Federal Acquisition Rule (FAR).

Putting Training into Action: Tabletop and Scenario Exercises 

Disaster response stakeholders stand around a table discussing a map.

Members of the private and public sector participate in a tabletop exercise focused on critical infrastructure at the FEMA Region III office. Photo provided courtesy of FEMA. 

“EMI courses are helpful, but hands-on workshops are the best, most effective training method,” says Ross. Tabletop and live-based scenario exercises are essential to retaining the information learned in coursework and fully preparing for a disaster. They bring all stakeholders together to practice working as a team and build the confidence and trust needed to operate effectively during a disaster.

Consider holding a tabletop or full-blown scenario training at the start of each disaster season to help refresh skills relevant to your locality’s most threatening seasonal perils. This also ensures that any new staff members are brought up-to-speed on a quarterly basis.

Local training initiatives can also be focused on building awareness and preparedness on a certain topic. Jolliff, for example, held a citywide initiative to build continuity of operations plans. As a result, he says many of the key planning agencies went on to take COOP courses and are now writing plans for their department.

Communications – or lack thereof – should be a focus of any disaster training scenario – without open lines of communication, the plan is near impossible to carry out. “You have to assume that your systems will be overwhelmed and communications will be down at first,” Whitson says.

Training should emphasize low-tech backup systems, such as ham radio, that enable you to function as well as possible given the circumstances. Take extra care to train Millennials and younger members of your emergency management staff on alternative communications methods, as they tend to be least familiar with these.

The disaster response and recovery scenarios, staffing and capabilities of every community are different. It’s important that your tabletop and full-blown scenarios reflect the priorities most relevant to your community – whether it be responding to tornadoes, reaching rural citizens or communicating with vulnerable populations.

Accessing Training

FEMA Independent Study (IS) Courses

FEMA Independent Study courses are offered online, serving as a low-cost, flexible option for disaster professionals. Search the catalogue to find courses specific to your disaster role.

Emergency Management Institute (EMI)

Courses are conducted in-person at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland. View the course calendar to identify upcoming training opportunities.

State and Regional Courses

Courses offered at the state and regional level provide a more customized training option. Select your state from the dropdown menu on FEMA’s searchable course schedule catalogue to find training opportunities in your state.

For regional training opportunities administered by your state, check your state emergency management agency’s website.

To view all state- and federal-sponsored EMI courses, view the 2017 FEMA EMI course catalog.

FEMA Codes:

To identify where the different courses are offered, the following course codes are used:

E – Resident courses held at the NETC campus

G – State/Local/Tribal field-delivered courses

IS – Independent Study courses

K – Resident courses held via Adobe Connect

L – Resident courses held offsite

V – Resident courses held via Video Teleconference (VTC)


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