This year’s Vibrant Response, a massive U.S. homeland defense exercise, began for the first time with a tweet.
Not a real tweet via Twitter, but a simulated version of the social media site known as Bleater. One minute, social media role players were “bleating” about waiting for Lady Gaga. The next, they were tweeting about an explosion — from a 10-kiloton, vehicle-borne nuclear weapon.
“Nowadays, news doesn’t break anymore — it tweets,” said Patti Bielling, the chief of public affairs for U.S. Army North, which ran the exercise.
So U.S. Army North hired Nusura, an emergency management consulting firm based in Lakewood, Colo., to provide SimulationDeck, a suite of social and traditional media tools. In addition to Bleater, SimulationDeck offers SimulationBook (offering the core functionality and setup of Facebook), Frogger (a site imitating Blogger) and EweTube (a YouTube analog).
It also has platforms for traditional media delivered via the web, such as radio and television broadcasts, mock newspaper sites, home pages for agencies to post news releases and photos, and a site with incident information about simulated disasters.
This kind of realistic media simulation is growing in importance for training events such as Vibrant Response 13, a multimillion-dollar chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) training exercise involving more than 9,000 service members and civilians. It took place July 26 through Aug. 13 at sites across Indiana and Kentucky.
Participants accessed SimulationDeck by logging in through a Web page, even on their phones. By browsing through the news, agency and social media sites, they could follow events throughout the 11 training areas used for the exercise and respond accordingly.
“It forces and allows for coordination that up until now has not been possible to replicate, but we see in the real world every time we do one of these things,” said Nusura President Jim Chesnutt. “No [previous] exercise, even in a small way, reflected the reality of the pressure put on the response staff, command staff and public affairs staff that the media, concerned citizens and other intergovernmental partners generate during a real-world event.”
The exercise tests the readiness of dozens of agencies and response teams, including active and reserve service members from all branches, the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local firefighters and search-and-rescue teams. The 200 live and 250 virtual events centered on the Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex in Indiana and involved medical response teams, route clearance, decontamination units, airlifts and search-and-rescue procedures.
“We’re replicating civilians that may be stuck in areas and they can’t get out, or family members who are concerned about their loved ones that are in the area supporting efforts,” Bielling said.
Chesnutt said that managing information and communicating with the public or other agencies requires additional time and effort that distracts commanders from their primary jobs. “If exercises don’t prepare incident commanders and military commanders for that reality, in my opinion they’re going out underprepared,” he said.
While much of the social media simulation is to prepare public affairs teams for disseminating information and responding to events in the community, Bielling said it can add realism for all parties involved, from medics to commanders, by providing information in the real-time format people expect.
Previous attempts to replicate social media involved emailing lists of tweets or sharing news stories through emails that often got buried in inboxes. Simulated newscasts were practically impossible to upload to the Pentagon’s Army Knowledge Online platform, which was not designed to host or stream video for such exercises.
Work-arounds included embedding videos in uploaded documents, Bielling said. Not everyone had the correct media players — but even when they did, the sites lacked the feel of a real website.
SimulationDeck can provide role players to create fake news reports and social media coverage, or it can provide simply the content management system that transforms content into a format most users recognize — such as a Facebook post or a news article on a real website.
“It’s really closer to real than we’ve been able to replicate in the past,” said Don Manuszewski, a spokesman for U.S. Army North. “When you get up in the morning, what’s the first thing people do? They check up on the news, or they check Facebook, or they check Twitter. We’re trying to get that ingrained throughout our task force.”
Organizers finalized the decision to use SimulationDeck two weeks before the start of the exercise, so the majority of participants accessed the site through a common login rather than through separate accounts that were issued to primary media role players and public affairs staffs.
Bielling said the Army hopes future iterations of social media simulations will include analytics to track users and find the breakdowns in communication that can cause problems.
Lauren Biron is the editor of Training & Simulation Journal.