A 9/11 Legacy–Lessons from the Coast Guard Potomac exercise for drill planners

September 11, 2009

Today marks the somber anniversary of eight years ago. And many were greeted this morning with breaking news about shots fired near President Obama’s motorcade as it crossed the Potomac. Flights at nearby Reagan National were put on ground halt status, FBI and Secret Service put on high alert.

There, were of course, no shots fired and the scare was caused by a routine Coast Guard exercise that happened to coincide with the president’s travel plans. The scare was in fact caused by CNN scanning a Coast Guard radio channel used for training purposes where they heard reports of ten shots fired. Now the Coast Guard is on the defensive trying to explain why an exercise was conducted there at that time was actually routine, why it was not communicated to other authorities, and how the training exercise got picked up by the news media and misinterpreted. They are saying the only thing they really can say at this point which is that the incident is being reviewed.

We’re all a little bit jumpy, aren’t we? CNN certain seems to me to be jumpy and unwilling apparently to accept any culpability in this scare. What happened to verifying before you report? It is no longer part of the reporting game and can’t be when you compete against everybody with a smart phone, cell camera and Twitter account. They will almost certainly continue to take the position that if they were fooled by overhearing training radio talk it was someone else’s fault for allowing them to be fooled. I may not be happy with their lack of acceptance of their responsibility in it, but that is the reality that emergency managers and particularly drill planners have to face today.

So the message is, in this jumpy environment, be careful with your drills and exercises. Be aware of how creating a realistic scenario can be interpreted. The military needs to be careful when the exercise their forces in mock attacks that they don’t scare the bejesus out of the population. I was in a cross-border drill one day that involved a scenario of an anthrax release at the international border crossing. All drill participants were in a hotel near the border without any use of internet or phones or any contact with the outside world. But a couple of drill participants went to the restroom during a break and were discussing the scenario. They were overheard by someone in the restroom who was not part of the drill and soon there was minor panic in the hotel. The lesson: even while you are in the restroom preface everything with: THIS IS A DRILL.

It’s tough to simulate distribution of public and media information while keeping the information tight–but it is essential. Again, clearly label everything and all info, including that intended to stay behind closed doors as a drill. There are some good and effective ways of simulating mass distributions including through Twitter and other social media. The key is to plan it well to be as realistic in interaction with the outside world as you can without making the big mistake of getting caught on CNN and making national news.

The most important lesson is to understand that in today’s hyper news environment the rule is report now, blame others later. So, be careful out there.

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Added note: Just viewed the interview with Vice Adm Currier on CNN. I am even more angry with CNN for the outrageous false reporting, their culpability in this mess and their stunning unwilingness to accept any responsibility. Fortunately, at least some others are seeing CNN’s role in this–at least to some degree.

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