Before dawn on Monday, 18 February 2008, just as an international conference was about to commence on the West Coast, a routine inspection of shipping containers entering the Port of Vancouver triggered an alarm for radiation experts in Ottawa. Verification of the manifest revealed that the container contents included unlisted illicit radiological material. Further onsite detection equipment found another container with a radiological dispersal device (or dirty bomb).
By mid-morning, both containers had been isolated within a safety perimeter. Local police, the hazardous materials team and emergency medical services were called in. The National Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear Response Team and the Federal Radiological Assessment Team were also on-site.
Why wasn’t this frightening discovery part of the evening news that day? The scenario was the first event in Exercise Initial Thunder (ExIT-08), a four-day exercise involving 13 federal government partners and eight provincial and local organizations. In the Port of Vancouver alone, over 350 people participated. And when the scenario moved to Vancouver Island as part of the Canadian Navy’s Exercise Sea Barrier, the numbers swelled to almost 1000.
ExIT-08 was a remarkable learning experience and networking opportunity for participating organizations and individuals alike, and it assuredly contributed to Canada’s ability to prepare against such insidious threats.
Yet perhaps more noteworthy, there was no mandate for all of these players to participate; it all came down to the desire to work together for the achievement of mutual goals. How did it happen?
The road to ExIT
In Canada, as in other federations, emergency response involves a tiered and complex approach with multiple levels of government and jurisdictions responsible for segments of the emergency management cycle. There is no overall body to instruct others to cooperate in exercising the national sum of capabilities for emergency response. Therefore, building a national network of partners who are willing to collaborate together in this type of exercise requires diligent dedication of time and gentle persuasion.
Prospective partners cannot be coerced into participating even when the benefits are obvious. It is only goodwill and trust that will ensure a willingness to “play.” Thus, the roots of ExIT-08 actually go back to the founding of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI).
CRTI, as a federal horizontal initiative, brings science workers together as members of science clusters. These de facto hybrid communities of practice are comprised of experts in each of five domains: chemical, biological, radiological-nuclear, explosives and forensics. Through their collective knowledge of these threats, the clusters identify science knowledge needs, technology gaps and opportunities for S&T solutions. Together they identify and propose new technology acquisitions for federal laboratories, new research domains and technology developments. The cluster members collaborate on projects through an investment model that requires partnerships as one of the criteria for funding.
Cluster leadership realized early on that live exercises would be required if they were to truly understand the role of S&T in countering these threats. Exercising would provide four opportunities to: test scientific skill in identifying and assessing CBNRE threats; exercise response plans; trial new S&T solutions developed through CRTI funding; and build trusting partnerships that would both result in better S&T solutions but, most importantly, be available in a real event when S&T advice and assistance would be required.
Beginning in 2003, with the aptly named Exercise As Is, the Radiological-Nuclear Science Cluster devised a series of exercises, each becoming increasingly complex and involving more players from the emergency response communities. With each iteration, the cluster evaluated their lessons learned, expanded the reach of their network and applied new S&T solutions to solving detection, response and recovery issues. By 2006, they were exercising with first responders and emergency managers from the Province of New Brunswick.
For the first time, specialized radiation S&T advice and capabilities were available to inform operators and scene commanders in their decision making.
By ExIT-08 in February, all of the science clusters were ready to participate in an exercise that would address all of the CBRNE threat areas. They also sought to engage other jurisdictions in Canada with the intent of broadened the CBRNE expertise network across the country and to demonstrate the S&T capacity to those organizations which might have a future requirement for that expertise.
The Port of Vancouver and CFB Esquimalt provided excellent opportunities to demonstrate S&T solutions including technologies, protocols, science advice and the activation of networks in support of emergency operations.
Throughout the series of exercises, both those described here and many others, some observations have been gathered on what works well in collaborative exercise planning and delivery.
Leadership is emergent. While the exercise director plays an important role in communicating commander’s intent and in presenting the case for participation, leadership is required and appears from many quarters. It is the exercise director’s role to persuade senior decision-makers to: see the “big picture”; commit human and financial resources; and communicate to their staff support for the exercise. Yet, at every level participants emerge as advocates or even evangelicals to influence their own and other organizations to join in.
Early birds get the influence. When an organization commits early in the planning stages, it is able to influence the design process to ensure that its own specific exercise needs are met. More importantly, it begins the building of trusted relationships long before the exercise begins. These can be used to spread additional influence.
Building trust is experiential. Trust only seems to develop through the physical experience of working and experimenting with others. By experiencing firsthand the capabilities of colleagues and organizations, a confidence and willingness to work together emerges. The proof is manifested in the relationships and partnerships that exist long after the exercise is over.
Not everyone is ready to play. Some organizations or individuals will not participate despite the most persuasive attempts on the part of organizers. Although disappointing, it is not necessarily a deal breaker; their role may be simulated if it is critical to the ability of other players to participate. One way to court them for the next exercise is through an observer program that can demonstrate the advantages of playing in future exercises.
It’s about organizational (and individual) learning. A critical part of the process are the After Action Reviews, which are deliberate means of identifying what needs to be sustained in the future (what worked well), what needs to be modified (improvements) and how that can be done (recommendations). The AARs ensure that lessons are learned at many levels. The overall exercise objectives are not the only ones that provide opportunities to learn. Each participating organization and individual can learn and grow from the exercise. Without