A functional tabletop exercise was run on November 14-15, 2011 in Salt Lake City, Utah, to test crisis response capabilities, communication protocols, and decision-making by the staff of the multi-agency Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) as they reacted to a hypothetical exercise scenario of accelerating volcanic unrest at the Yellowstone caldera. The exercise simulated a rapid build-up of seismic activity, ground deformation, and hot-spring water-chemistry and temperature anomalies that culminated in a small- to moderate-size phreatomagmatic eruption within Yellowstone National Park. The YVO scientific team's responses to the unfolding events in the scenario and to simulated requests for information by stakeholders and the media were assessed by (a) the exercise organizers; (b) several non-YVO scientists, who observed and queried participants, and took notes throughout the exercise; and (c) the participants themselves, who kept logs of their actions during the exercise and later participated in a group debriefing session and filled out detailed questionnaires. These evaluations were tabulated, interpreted, and summarized for this report, and on the basis of this information, recommendations have been made. Overall, the YVO teams performed their jobs very well. The exercise revealed that YVO scientists were able to successfully provide critical hazards information, issue information statements, and appropriately raise alert levels during a fast-moving crisis. Based on the exercise, it is recommended that several measures be taken to increase YVO effectiveness during a crisis:
1. Improve role clarification within and between YVO science teams.
2. Improve communications tools and protocols for data-sharing and consensus-building among YVO scientists, who are geographically and administratively dispersed among various institutions across the United States.
3. Familiarize YVO staff with Incident Command System (ICS) procedures and protocols, and provide more in-depth training to appropriate staff members, as needed.
4. Train all science team members in the use of all analytical and computational tools available to them, in order to maximize effectiveness of teams in tracking and interpreting possible accelerating unrest at Yellowstone.
Desirable pre-crisis preparations include: (a) updating a catalog of existing map and information products (and identifying additional products) that would be helpful during a crisis; (b) creating "to do" lists of early-crisis tasks for each scientific team; (c) coordinating radio frequencies among partner agencies; and (d) brief training on and promotion of the internal YVO Web log as a repository for scientific observations, data, photographs, and other material to be shared among YVO scientific teams during a crisis. This exercise was designed as an opportunity to practice response to a fast-developing volcano crisis and to test for organizational and procedural weaknesses that could emerge during a real crisis. This report is based upon the observations of the exercise organizers during the one-day exercise and upon written evaluations by the participants. It does not attempt to evaluate any other aspect of YVO or the scientific expertise of any of the highly competent YVO staff. Participants unanimously found the exercise to be helpful for improving their response capabilities, and it is our hope that the report will be a starting point for internal discussions that will make YVO even better-prepared for some future volcano crisis.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Volcano crisis response at Yellowstone volcanic complex - after-action report for exercise held at Salt Lake City, Utah, November 15, 2011
U.S. Geological Survey
Volcano Science Center, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory