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May 15, 2014
Bigger isn't always better in oil spill response exercises
By Amanda Czepiel, JD, Senior Managing Editor

How long should your oil spill response exercise be?

Speaking at this year’s International Oil Spill Conference (IOSC) in Savannah, Georgia, Captain  Joe Gleason, chief of the Coast Guard Office of Contingency Preparedness and Exercise Policy, said that the old adage “bigger is better” may not always apply to oil spill response training exercises.

According to  Gleason, the value of smaller tabletop exercises and workshops should be recognized.  They can provide government agencies, private sector representatives, and non-governmental organizations opportunities to effectively address broad strategic issues.

SONS revamped

In his presentation, “Getting Big Results by Going Small—The Importance of Tabletop Exercises and Workshops,”  Gleason discussed how the Coast Guard has reduced the size and scope of the Spill of National Significance (SONS) exercises over the past 4 years.  In 2010, the SONS exercise was a full-scale multistate event, while the 2012 and 2013 SONS exercises were executive level tabletop exercises that focused on response issues in the Arctic.  Gleason reported that because of the reduction in exercise scope, the Coast Guard and other members of the National Response Team worked through many strategic level issues, including lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon spill, and issues that would not have been discussed during a larger scale exercise.

Keys to successful training exercises

Of course, large-scale operations-based exercises are very important.  Gleason suggests selecting an exercise format based on the objective. If the objectives include creating a strategic focus, tackling complex issues, clarifying roles and responsibilities, or aligning unity of effort, a discussion-based, lower stress, smaller exercise format may be of greater value.

 Gleason finished his presentation with stating that in an exercise, “failure is only if someone didn’t learn something.” He also shared what he believes are the keys to success in any training exercise:

  • Don’t shortcut the planning process.
  • Define your objectives.
  • Use a trained facilitator.
  • Involve all major participants.
  • Document lessons learned.
  • Take action.
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