Last week, FEMA began sharing the lessons learned from the TOPOFF 4 Exercises with some of the nation’s leading emergency managers. TOPOFF (short for Top Officials Exercise) is a full scale exercise that takes place every two years in defined locations to test the readiness, response and reaction of participating communities. Elected and appointed officials, senior personnel from various government agencies, as well as first responders, private sector members, voluntary organizations and citizens participate in a mock exercise to see, very simply, “What Works” & “What Doesn’t.”

FEMA had already shared some of the initial lessons from TOPOFF 4 – which took place in Guam, Phoenix, AZ and Portland, OR in October 2007 – with the first After Action Report . Last week’s efforts are another good step to make sure we understand how well we are doing in ‘dealing’ with various ‘events.’

TOPOFF 4, like any other exercise is a ‘teachable moment” – a performance measure with parallels to those awful standardized tests we hated as kids and the other dreadful entrance exams (SAT, GMAT, etc.) we needed to go forward in life. But this is a performance measure that I hope would show us areas of failure and where ‘needs improvement’ stands out LOUD and CLEAR!

If the reports following TOPOFF 4 stated that everything was wonderful and perfect, I’d say the exercise failed to push anyone or anything to the breaking point and was an absolute waste of time and money for everyone involved. Fortunately, FEMA’s report tells us we have a lot more work to do in information sharing; National Incident Management System (NIMS) integration and understanding; interpreting scientific and technical information; and more.

Hey folks, guess what? This is great news. By no means am I saying we need to celebrate failures. Bad grades and report cards in the Cooper household don’t merit posting on the refrigerator door or an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner. What we should be celebrating is that solutions will require public and private sector personnel from all levels to sit down, figure out what did not work, define a plan of corrective action and work the problem until it is fixed.

The people of Guam, Arizona and Oregon should be very proud of their participation in these exercises. Like the previous TOPOFF exercise predecessors, they know where gaps and vulnerabilities exist in their response capabilities and have a benchmark to gauge where they need to be. It’s the rest of the country that has never been through an exercise like TOPOFF that has to be wondering, “How well prepared are we?”

FEMA would be well served to post on America’s bulletin board some type of plain-spoken report (avoiding acronyms and government-ese talk, etc.): a listing of things that we as citizens, business owners, parents, community members, first responders, public servants and so forth should be asking our federal, state, local, and tribal governments, community organizations, private sector members, schools and so forth about our own state of readiness.

From my own experiences as a participant in TOPOFF 3, I know that not all of the identified gaps and vulnerabilities can be, -or should be – publicly shared due to the security issues and sensitivities. It is more than appropriate to restrict those lessons and insights to those who absolutely need to know them.

It is my hope that the often professed ‘new FEMA’ will fight the battle inside DHS and with parties outside of the Department to make a open, fair and forthcoming public record of ‘how we are doing’ based on TOPOFF 4.. When that information is put forward, it has the capability to inform and empower us to make the resilient society we need to be. Such information should also not be glossed over or ‘spun’ to put a smiley face on sobering findings. We need the facts, so let’s be straightforward with them.

I have no doubt that there will be stakeholders – ranging from elected officials, department/agency leaders, to the mainstream media – who will undoubtedly hype, over-react and politicize the failures the exercise revealed. That type of behavior would be a tragic and grave disappointment. Anyone can be a critic and naysayer – that’s the easy part but it takes guts and courage to test yourself in a national exercise and then have your successes and failures aired publicly and scrutinized by everyone. The participants of these exercises take part because they want to get better and smarter at what they do. Subjecting them to blistering inquests, finger-pointing and ridicule is no way to encourage others to take similar steps to learn how well they can perform when tested in an exercise.

I hope FEMA will take these lessons learned and teach us all the good and the bad with our performances in this exercise. That may not be a popular job, but it’s one we need to be done without hesitation and regardless of findings. As any winning coach knows, how you practice (in this case ‘exercise’), often tells you how well you can ‘perform’ on game days.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More