THE MAGAZINE

First-Responder Training to Change

By Matthew Harwood

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the process of implementing a new model for its National Exercise Program (NEP) to create a system where the nation’s first responders exercise more frequently in scenarios of rising complexity that steadily involve more levels of government and civil society. The program would culminate in an exercise that tests national capabilities during a large-scale catastrophe.

The new model, known as the progressive cycle, will occur in two-year intervals that end with a National Level Exercise that tests national response capabilities and involves senior-level participation from federal officials. The first interval began in January of this year.

State, local, territorial, and tribal governments participate in the NEP exercises featuring varying threats with increasing degrees of complexity. The exercises are linked to common objectives determined by the Homeland Security Council Principals Committee before each cycle begins.

FEMA’s decision to make the NEP more collaborative is important to state and local emergency managers and first responders. In the past, FEMA performed Top Officials (TOPOFF) exercises to identify vulnerabilities in the nation’s domestic preparedness and incident management architecture. These exercises, however, didn’t identify the nation’s vulnerabilities, so much as the federal government’s, explains John Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and current president of the National Emergency Managers Association.

“I haven’t found a state yet that said they had a high learning experience from the TOPOFF series,” he says. There was, however, “a lot of...concern that federal agencies felt like they would come in and take charge.”

FEMA, according to Jon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, has moved away from a federal-centric model in favor of developing and financing baseline capabilities for state and local first responders that will be critical during events that require a national response made up of state and local stakeholders.

This evolution is an acknowledgement from FEMA that it does not have the manpower and resources to respond effectively and efficiently during a national catastrophe that cripples vast portions of the country. What it can do, says Monken, is “push down these resources to the local level, allow them to develop [them], and create ways for them to mutually support each other.”

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