In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. –Yogi Berra (former American Major League Baseball catcher, outfielder, and manager)

Spring has sprung, which has a very important connotation – the Major League Baseball (MLB) season is already well underway. Every year, baseball fans across the United States eagerly anticipate and celebrate the opening of the season. Perennially chock-full of high hopes and big dreams, the first practices of the season of America’s favorite pastime are usually focused on determining how well spring training is going to prepare players, and fans, for the year ahead. The same is true for the nation’s emergency managers, who are asking themselves many of the same questions baseball players and fan are asking: Is this “the” year? How will the team perform? Will we be able to stand up to the pressure? Will these hard-fought practices pay off?

The opening games of the MLB season are also, in many ways, a reasonably good test of just how effective spring training was for the players – renewing their skills, addressing challenges and problems remaining from the previous year, and integrating themselves into what is often a fairly new lineup. In short, the similarities between a professional team-oriented sport such as baseball and the field of emergency management are endless. More specifically, each and every year, baseball players and emergency management professionals alike: (a) review the fundamentals; (b) get to know their teammates; and (c) test their abilities.

Spring is an excellent time for not only baseball teams, but also emergency command teams, to prepare for the year ahead. Here are three ways to get this year’s emergency-management “season” off to a productive start:

Review the Fundamentals: Little League coaches spend the first few weeks having their teams go through a series of batting, fielding, and running exercises to evaluate the players’ basic skills. After those skills have beenentified, the team spends the next several weeks targeting weaknesses and measuring improvement. This concept is similar for emergency managers. At this time of year it is particularly important for emergency managers to review all after-action reports from the previous year as well as the associated improvement plans. The managers also need to review the notes from last year’s disaster committee meetings to ensure that all areasentified as “in need of improvement” have been reviewed, addressed, and closed. In addition, any plans or policies affected by the changes mandated should be updated and listed as “objectives to test” during the 2011 exercise season.

Know the Teammates: Every year, baseball teams add or remove players from their rosters. The new players on the team are asked to fill gaps, learn plays, and understand how their own roles and capabilities are expected to contribute to the overall team success. For a command center, this approach may include ensuring that new members review response plans, job action sheets, and policies they may be asked to carry out during an activation of the emergency operations plan. They may also need to complete both educational – e.g., National Incident Management System (NIMS) – and practical training programs to introduce them more deeply, and more directly, to the response activities and nuances associated with the organization’s plans, mission, and culture.

Another requirement is knowing where and how to reach each team member during an emergency. As most veteran responders know, disasters do not always happen during regular working hours. Therefore, having the ability to reach key staff at any time – day, night, and/or on both weekends and holidays – is critically important to the success of a response. Unfortunately, this requirement is easier said than done, because contact information changes frequently, and maintaining up-to-date information often is almost like a full-time job in itself.

Test Abilities: Just like on opening day of the baseball season, many responder organizations will not fully know that their team is fully prepared and ready until both individual and team skills have been tested under real or simulated environments. Because emergency managers cannot always predict when the next “real” event will happen, exercises and drills are usually the most effective way not only to check individual and team competencies but also to hone new skills.

The use of brief tabletop exercises is a good way to start. In addition, short discussions (15-20 minutes) related to the lessons learned from last year will help responders see how the changes instituted then will improve their programs. One example: Many hospitals are struggling with the implementation of Incident Action Planning. During the next meeting of the disaster committee, emergency managers can provide a short scenario with 5-10 informational or action-oriented injects. Then they can ask the committee members toentify three overarching objectives they would want to address first. It is particularly helpful, in using this approach, to capture these objectives on an oversized ICS 202 (Incident Objectives) form that everyone can see, and then further discuss the tactical steps needed to ensure that each objective could be met within the first few hours of a response.

Within a few months, everyone should be able to differentiate between the division leaders and the so-called “basement dwellers” in the standings. Teams can always improve, though – one has only to look at the San Diego Padres last year as an example: They started out a little slow, then picked up momentum after the All-Star break and made a good run for the playoffs before losing to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants in the final games of the regular season. Similarly, there are many memorable “wins” possible in emergency management if the right training is conducted. As Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (former pitcher for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers) once said, “People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.”

Mitch Sawuwatari
Mitch Saruwatari

Mitch Saruwatari is vice president of quality and compliance at LiveProcess, and previously held key positions at Kaiser Permanente. He also has served as: Region I Disaster Medical and Health Specialist for the State of California; a member of the Los Angeles County Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Resources and Services Administration Bioterrorism Advisory Committee; a founding member of the California Disaster Interest Group; and as co-lead for development of the Hospital Incident Command System. In addition to his current position, he is an instructor at the Center for Domestic Preparedness. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Health and is working toward a doctorate from UCLA.

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