Communication Exercise enables Partners to Work Together

Communication Exercise enables Partners to Work Together

Players from multiple levels of government participate in ADEM's Statewide Communication Exercise

When an emergency strikes, be it a natural disaster or a human-caused, responders need to be able to communicate.  And yet as simple as it sounds, communication is area in emergency management where there’s always room for improvement.


Last month, the Arizona Division of Emergency Management (ADEM) brought together over 100 communication experts representing more than 45 agencies and businesses to test and evaluate their communication capabilities in a full-scale exercise.


A full-scale exercise is a simulation of a real event, during which all the personnel and equipment that would be called up in an actual emergency exercise their response plans.  Full-scale exercises often involve multiple agencies, the activation of emergency operations centers, and getting field experience.


The goal of this communication exercise was to test and establish interoperability (the ability to communicate across different platforms) between local, county, and state, federal, tribal, private sector, non-governmental organizations and National Guard units.


Nichole Fortson, DEMA’s Exercise Officer, was the lead planner for the exercise. She explained that full-scale exercises are as much about getting things right as they are about finding ways to improve. “We hope to test and evaluate exercise participants’ capability to connect and communicate through common information systems,” she said. “We also want to be able to identify potential gaps between the various disciplines.”


In the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), people from a variety of agencies were talking on the phone, typing on the computer and discussing plans. Morgan Hoaglin, ADEM’s Communications Coordinator, coordinated the exercise. Right after 9 a.m., he picked up his handheld radio, pressed the talk button, and got things started, “Attention all controllers…”


Hoaglin was busy throughout the day, relaying information to the players in the form of scenario injects meant to keep the exercise moving. He was happy to see every agency exercise radio, phone and data systems in a challenging environment.


“We communicated from the National Guard Blackhawk in flight on a VHF frequency to simulate communications to a local hospital,” Hoaglin said. “We are working on a communications path from the Blackhawks on MedEvac missions to the hospitals and this was a great first step.”  

While agencies were free to participate in the exercise online or remotely via radio, Jeff Lineberry, Deputy IT Director in Navajo County, drove one of Arizona’s mobile communications center vehicles all the way down to Phoenix just for the exercise.


Even though the exercise is about the communication devices and programs everyone uses during an event, Lineberry finds it just as important to put faces to names. “It helps to know one another before an incident and do these exercises together,” he said. “You know ‘Joe’ will be there to jump in and lend a hand when you need one.”


Full-scale exercises are also an ideal place to work out any kinks that may come up. “Often equipment is stowed away and its general condition is not known,” Hoaglin said.  “Exercises help simulate communications needs in various environments.” 


Richard Hinckley, Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations, and his team attended the exercise to ensure interoperability between local, state and federal agencies. “Our radio systems are not programmed to communicate with most state, county, and local agencies,” he said. “This exercise gives us the capability to use other equipment in order to bridge that communication gap.”


Hinckley said that his team was able to fully communicate with the other agencies as a result of being at the exercise and working their equipment.


Arizona’s Army National Guard also participated in the exercise. The Army’s A4 22 Tactical Communications team worked to ensure they were able to communicate with other agencies and to be able to source each other’s assets to take care of what may happen.


“We want to be able to communicate when an event happens, to be able to receive or provide resources right away,” Commander Black of the A4 22 team said.  “We are responsible for being able to communicate with the National Guard Military Police and Infantry division when they are out in the field.”


Matt Heckard, ADEM Radiological Emergency Preparedness Planner worked as an exercise controller in the SEOC. His role was to evaluate the testing and validation of existing communications plans, and identify capability gaps and potential areas for improvement.


“It’s valuable for each stakeholder to validate their individual abilities to communicate with each other during an exercise,” Heckard said. “It helps to form a sustainable and interoperable network that can respond quickly and efficiently, creating a common operational picture that supports effectively addressing any needs that may emerge from the whole community.”


Full-scale exercises allow agencies and individuals to put what they learn in the classroom and during tabletop exercises into practice in a risk-free environment, helping them prepare for potential real-life disasters.