Emergency Management Healthcare

Warming Up: Wildfires and Tabletop Exercises

If it feels like more and more of the year is wildfire season, that’s because it is. Wildfires have become more extreme over the past few decades, with seasons averaging 40-80 days longer than they were 30 years ago.

The US is adapting to this drier reality. Some areas now lack insurance options due to fire risks. Poor forest management and climate change have also given megafires more opportunities to take hold. To go head-to-head with this new era of wildfires and megafires, fire management must change.

While we want to avoid these hellish events altogether, we still have to respond to them while also trying to kick them to the curb long-term. Tabletop exercises are one of the best tools emergency managers and other preparedness practitioners have at their disposal, and the utility of these dry runs in the wildfire sphere should be no surprise. Let’s take a look at how to build a wildfire tabletop drill and work the findings into operations.

The Growing Wildfires Threat

Wildfires have always been a static threat, but the shadow they cast has grown significantly in recent years.

The natural patchwork face of historical forests, characterized by meadows and topological features strewn between isolated packs of trees and other vegetation, slowed fires and limited spread. Modern methods of replanting forests has created denser woodlands.

Smaller gaps between trees allow wildfires to spread quickly and persist. These replanting patterns, combined with the extreme conditions of climate change, will turn many of our forests into tinderboxes. Not only are we faced with the ecological conundrums of this system, we now have to prepare our communities in these regions for severe fire seasons.

Authorities are starting to turn their attention to wildland urban interface (WUI) communities. These communities are suburban, located closer to wildlife, and heavily dependent on cars for egress. They’re cropping up more and more despite the swelling threat of fires.

Unlike more rural areas, these developments have much less spacing between structures and give the embers more fuel to consume. And unlike more urban areas, the resources and infrastructure needed to respond to fires, like tall ladder trucks, aren’t always available to WUI communities. Growing concerns are sparking change and more resources are being spent on dampening the wildfire threat many wildland urban interface communities face.

(An Important Aside: Building defensible spaces around homes is a way for communities and their members to mitigate severe fire damage. Defensible spaces are buffers on properties between homes and the surroundings through slow the spread of fire due through strategic material use and vegetation management.

These zones deter the propagation of fire, which can limit losses and save lives. Emergency responders will usually prioritize their goal of saving lives and let spaces, structures, and resources perish if deemed necessary.

Take a look at the National Fire Protection Association’s checklist for more tips on creating a defensible space around your home.)

Wildfire Tabletop Exercise Pointers

Everyone likes familiarity. It creates a sense of comfortability, and that feeling instills confidence. In emergency management scenarios, that sense of confidence can speed up decision-making and leave a noticeable impact.

EOC managers and other emergency management leaders can build that sense of familiarity and confidence through tabletop exercises. For the EOC managers in wildfire-prone areas, a wildfire tabletop is an invaluable tool, one that your team will feel the impact of in the course of a real situation.

Like any tabletop drill, wildfire drills should include certain elements to ensure they leave an impression on stakeholders. Let’s explore those elements.

All Hazards at Once

No two events are the same. While exercises can’t replicate what stakeholders and responders will see in the field and through the course of a response, they have the ability to explore every possible scenario.

Just as an EOC manager would plan for all-hazards, they should drill for all hazards. Special conditions, like additional extreme weather, resource shortages, or personnel absences, are easy to explore through tabletop exercises.

Build Community and Stakeholders Involvement

Rarely will an event like a wildfire only involve and EOC and its participants. Fires rip through everything in their way, and people have to act when they do. Often, citizens and businesses will evacuate when flames start encroaching. More essential civil infrastructure and systems, like healthcare, will also move operations if the fire begins threatening the essential services they provide.

Again, tabletop exercises are meant to foster comfortability and train muscle memory. EOCs and municipal emergency managers can take these opportunities to bring external and other community stakeholders into the conversation before a disaster forces them in. Get these stakeholders into the processes, show them how to operate under the extreme stress, and train their eyes to the resources that are available to them.

Get Some Reps with Technology and Processes

Do you feel some déjà vu? Well, you should. Tabletop exercises, much like this section of this blog, are built on repetition.

Just as tabletop exercises are a way for community stakeholders to create muscle memory, so too is it a chance for EOC participants to learn the processes and technology they have to work with over the course of a response.

Certain stakeholders may find manipulating GIS maps and communications systems difficult, and tabletop exercises help them get the jitters out before time becomes a limited resource or errors carry heavier weights.

Ease into Recovery

Any emergency manager knows the recovery phase is just as important as the response phase, and it comes packaged with its own set of deliverables and operations.

The transition can feel like coming to a sudden stop. Moving a team from a full sprint to a slower walk is a challenge as well. Tabletop exercises let EOC teams establish practice that tempo change.

Roll the Script for Communications

To reiterate what’s already been reiterated, tabletop exercises are a chance to figure things out. Your team can play with ideas in these simulations, and they should take the chance to see if their messages land with their audiences. Can a message been misinterpreted? Does a piece of communications contain all relevant information? How does this notification relay information? Misinterpretation is just as much of a threat as fires are.

Dealing with Wildfires

Wildfires are growing as a threat to communities. Residents, businesses, essential services, and municipalities have to prepare for the reality of longer and intense fire seasons. Tabletop exercises can manage a good portion of that preparedness workload. Through defensible spaces, tabletop exercises, and other mitigation efforts, communities can at least ensure that they are making themselves as resilient as possible.

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