Virtual Exercises - A Cost-Effective Option

Some exercises require a hands-on environment, whereas others can thrive in a virtual training space. FUSION X is one federally sponsored exercise that has evolved from a tabletop event at a single location to a virtual training for participants, who require flexibility and cost-effectiveness, at various locations throughout the United States.

Those responsible for their organization’s preparedness efforts have often been told that they must find ways to do more with less. With budgets tightening even further, exercises are a likely victim of this trend, as large exercises can be extremely costly to sponsors.  However, with continuing and increasing threats associated with natural incidents, industrial accidents, and deliberate acts, members of the homeland security enterprise need the opportunity to practice their skills in meaningful ways. For those supporting preparedness at the local, state, regional, tribal, and federal levels, this means considering new possibilities for exercising targeted audiences using less expensive methods, but without sacrificing value.

Exercising Fusion Centers On 2 August 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) sponsored FUSION X, a timely one-day exercise that allowed eight fusion centers to share information and analysis across their National Network of Fusion Centers (National Network) partners. Over the preceding years, DHS had invested a great deal of time and money to support the development of individual fusion center capabilities, including the publication of fusion center guidelines and baseline operational standards. By 2012, internal capabilities grew, and DHS I&A determined that the next logical step was to begin testing information receiving, gathering, analysis, and dissemination across the National Network. Their exercise design included elements of both a tabletop and a functional exercise, with players sitting at different tables and receiving injects that drove interaction.

Exercise support personnel occupied a simulation cell and provided pieces of the puzzle as the scenario advanced. Additionally, each table had a facilitator and an evaluator, who recorded exercise play and developed an after-action report for each table. After the exercise, the lead evaluator gathered and aggregated all exercise data, and developed an after-action report for the National Network. Although DHS I&A and the participants considered the exercise a success – and important strengths and areas for improvement wereentified – the cost (both in time and money) was not insignificant. Analysts were away from their desks for two to three days, and a large support staff was needed to facilitate and record the exercise.

In 2014, DHS I&A embarked on an effort to conduct the second exercise in the FUSION X series, using the same tabletop concept as the one used in 2012. As the planning process proceeded, issues of funding and level of effort put the project on hold, and the exercise was postponed. With a continued belief in the value of simultaneously exercising multiple members of the National Network, the newly formed DHS I&A Continuity and Exercise Programs Branch and their exercise planning team began developing a new version of FUSION X – a functional exercise that would take place in a completely virtual, yet secure, environment.

Moving to a Virtual Training Ground The exercise, conducted in July 2015, covered a large geographic footprint, but with no travel required. Players were located in fusion centers in Arizona, Colorado,aho, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, in addition to DHS Watch and Warning Center in Washington, DC. Continuity and Exercise Programs Branch leadership and members of the exercise support team (composed of an exercise director, simulation cell staff, and evaluators) were also spread out, participating from Washington, Virginia, Texas, New Mexico, and Washington, DC.

Although the exercise support team provided training, fusion centers were responsible for providing their own facilitators and evaluators. The former were responsible for: (a) supporting scenario development; (b) injecting their pieces of the Master Scenario Events List; and (c) leading discussion at their respective locations. The latter were responsible for: (a) documenting exercise play; (b) gathering participant feedback forms; and (c) providing their analysis of events through exercise evaluation guides. In addition to making observations on the execution of the fusion centers’ critical operational capabilities, the exercise support team also collected and aggregated reflections on the design, conduct, and evaluation of a virtual exercise, including the following:

  • The virtual exercise allowed analysts to better mimic their day-to-day roles and responsibilities by more accurately replicating their work environments. The injects – in the form of social media posts, situation reports, and memos from the various intelligence community partners – reflected the information received during a typical workday, and participants were able to respond authentically. Moreover, with a growing effort to gather, analyze, and share information gained through social media and other electronic methods, the virtual environment provided an excellent background for demonstrating fusion center capabilities.

  • FUSION X 2015 was less expensive to execute and demanded less time from exercise planners and players than an exercise where participants come together at a single location. Although the Continuity and Exercise Programs Branch made an initial investment in developing an exercise that could be successfully executed in the virtual environment, planners at the national and fusion center levels avoided travel costs, hours lost to travel, and an investment in backfill. Moving forward, the exercise can now be repeated with other groups of fusion centers with minimal time, effort, and investment.

  • The exercise planning team had excellent coordination with fusion center planners, using Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) Connect to host the traditional Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) planning processes and to share all exercise documents with the planning team. However, players needed much more direction on exercise “rules of engagement.” Uncertainty about when to engage each other versus when to engage the simulation cell slowed the pace of play during the first few hours of the exercise.

  • Players practiced, or were introduced to, virtual tools of their trade. During FUSION X 2015, players used HSIN’s situational awareness platform (SitAware) as one of their methods of communication. Although not all fusion centers had used SitAware in the past, they recognized during the course of the exercise its value for sharing information during fast-paced incidents.

The execution of FUSION X 2015 provided valuable insight into not only how fusion centers can more efficiently exercise their analysts, but also how virtual exercises might be used to serve a wider homeland security audience. In looking toward other applications of virtual exercises, organizations should ask the following three questions when determining whether a virtual exercise might be appropriate for them:

  • “Does how we want to exercise translate into a virtual world?” Although many organizations have made good use of virtual training for tactical procedures – for example, hazardous materials, active shooter response – virtual exercises may be less appropriate for these operations. A virtual exercise does not allow responders to practice hands-on operations, such as donning and doffing personal protective equipment, practicing technical processes such as sampling, or exercising the use of equipment that is paramount to their operations.

  • “Does what we want to exercise translate to a virtual world?” For those considering an exercise based on a capability such as operational coordination or public information and warning, a virtual exercise might prove effective. Organizations can place players in the virtual chairs like the ones they occupy in the real world, which encourages information sharing via the mechanisms they use each day. Social media, which is part of the daily information-gathering practices of many emergency responders and receivers, can be seamlessly integrated into the Master Scenario Events List of a virtual exercise. 

  • “Does the scope of our intended exercise translate to the virtual world?” The scope of some exercises allows for easy and effective virtual play, providing more realism than a tabletop exercise. For example, jurisdictions may want to exercise the critical first 30 minutes of a response, when people are not yet at their desks and are forced to share information and make decisions from wherever they are. Likewise, virtual prevention exercises – done in small increments over a long period of time – may allow players to exercise analytical tradecraft while still effectively performing their daily activities. Finally, exercises that include a large number of participants from different geographical locations may be a good fit for a virtual approach.

Virtual exercise will not be appropriate for all organizations or for all exercises. However, in an environment of limited budgets and extensive virtual communication, organizations should consider the value of shifting their exercise paradigm into the virtual world.

Dawn Thomas

Dawn Thomas is an associate director in CNA’s SAS Safety and Security division. She has contributed to the analyses of real-world operations, including two presidential Inaugurations, Democratic and Republican National Conventions, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Irma, and the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado. She has also worked with state, local, regional, and federal entities in preparing for and responding to catastrophic events.



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