Responding to a Really Bad Day: Denver Interagency Continuity of Operation Exercise

May 9 was a bad day for the city of Denver. At least, it was in the scenario presented to them by the DHS Emergency Services Sector.

Various services within the city were dealt devastating losses at the hand of an organized terrorist attack directed at first responders. The fire department lost a number of units and the use of several facilities and suffered the death or serious injury to many personnel, including top officers and other key members. Other departments and agencies from the city were presented with similar blows related to their own critical infrastructure and key resource systems.

Of course, this was a scenario to test the resiliency and continuity capability of each department’s leadership to react and overcome obstacles, ensuring minimal interruption in the service they provide to the city and its citizens.

The tabletop exercise was part of Denver Interagency Continuity of Operation Exercise (DICE), a conglomerate of federal departments and agencies in the Denver area that meet annually to entertain the same type of activity.

This year, the exercise included a first responder edition that had executive-level staff from the Denver police, fire, emergency medical services, emergency management and public-works service providers participating. There were also representatives from select offices of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as from the IAFC and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The exercise was the first to be offered by the DHS Emergency Services Sector anywhere in the country. It provides agencies a custom-built opportunity to examine senior staff-level consequence management, continuity of operations planning and critical-infrastructure key-resource resiliency and protection theories.

The exercise scenario is collaboratively built around specific facilities and capabilities of the city in play and is designed to cause significant disruption to normal operations. Each group representing its department reacts to the scenario in a nonattribution discussion and decides what action would be taken based on their policies, procedures and normal practices.

The Denver Fire Department’s team reacted well to address the specific issues in a compressed timeframe. Sometimes the team would institute an action, like initiating the backup communications capability. In other instances no policy existed, which provided an excellent forum for identifying the best solution.

The exercise started a number of conversations: What services are essential to provide to the citizens without interruption? Where are certain systems maintained and backed up? How much time will a rollover to the backup take? How will mutual-aid strike teams set up by neighboring fire departments be ordered? How many companies are needed from surrounding agencies to provide service to the city as resources are drawn into the incidents in the city’s core?

As time moved on, the exercise shifted into determining how to plan funerals and deal with grief within the department while balancing staffing concerns, replacing apparatus and planning recruit academies. Since the other city agencies present were also dealing with the same or similar issues, it provided a forum for cooperation between departments, an understanding of how others operate and appreciation of each department’s unique issues.

It was a challenging exercise that stimulated thought and tested the plans already in place. It’s the type of exercise every agency needs to conduct to test their own preparedness.

Dan Qualman is chief for the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority and an IAFC Go Team member.

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