September 13, 2009 By Karen Stewartson
John Stanley has more than 20 years of experience in port security operations, as well as in planning military preparedness operations that drill for coastal and harbor defense. As the U.S. Coast Guard's contingency planner, Stanley develops plans for natural and man-made hazards.
How important is contingency preparedness in the big scheme of things?
We find it to be very important. Unfortunately in some areas it's put on the back burner for many of our commanders, simply because they have a lot on their plates on a day-to-day basis. By preparing the plans for them and educating them in it, it frees them up to take care of the day-to-day business. Contingency preparedness has taken on a high level of priority within the Coast Guard in recent times, in particular following 9/11, and then all port security contingencies came after that and with Hurricane Katrina.
How do past disaster responses help with designing future disaster preparation?
We look at the responses we've done, critique them and try to figure out what we could do better next time. We also hold exercises where we review what went on in the exercise and try to find solutions to what went wrong [and] validate what went right. One of the best examples we have is the response to the 1996 TWA 800 [jetliner] crash off Long Island, N.Y., where we didn't have particular plans for dealing with a large number of dead people, retrieving bodies and body parts and wreckage. Before that incident, we never had good standing guidance for our field commanders on how to handle a mortuary affair type of situation. That now resides in the plan and has become corporate knowledge.
What kinds of training exercises do you have?
Sometimes we have exercises that are no more than discussions. We put issues on the table and discuss them. We also can take that and throw scenarios out in a single room and have a tabletop exercise. We also have what we call functional exercises - where we work sending e-mail or messages back and forth between the commands in order to participate - all the way up to the highest level, which is our full-scale exercises where we put people in the field to exercise our plans.
What do you think other agencies need to do to become more prepared?
Continuing emphasis on preparedness within the organization and with planning, training, equipping and exercising; within them are developing doctrine and understanding the overall protocols. Get involved with an Incident Command System and a standard format within that organization for writing plans. If plans are written in a reasonably well understood format, it's much easier to find the information. Learn what's in those plans, and how to find and use that information in a way that when you're faced with a scenario, you can adapt it to the situation. Plans cannot be written so far in advance predicting everything that could possibly happen in the particular scenario. You never know where or when, so you have to leave [plans] open-ended so you can adapt them to the situation at hand, apply leadership, experience and a good judgment of the commander: you have a better opportunity for success.