Drills & Emergency Exercises

No one likes a bad surprise

Barbara Webster, EVP Americas

Over the course of my career in emergency response with two airlines and an oil and gas company, I’ve heard a number of people espousing the virtues of surprise exercises and drills. Many in the field of emergency and crisis response are outspoken proponents of holding exercises in the middle of the night, on weekends, and during holidays. In their opinion, surprise exercises at difficult times represented the only true test of company’s ability to respond.

In my experience, the true goals of drills and exercises are effective coordination and communication among stakeholders, training people how to respond to crises, and getting as many people, especially those in executive leadership roles and external stakeholder organizations, to participate and learn. Surprise weekend exercises may sound like a brilliant idea, but for many of us who have been responsible for coordinating large-scale exercises, the results can be of limited value.

Some of the rationale for conducting surprise exercises at an extreme time is that incidents and accidents occur at the worst possible times in an organization. The opinion is that in order to have a realistic exercise, it too should occur at an unexpected time for the participants. It sounds good in theory, but from a practical perspective, that philosophy comes with its own set of problems, and most of the realism is lost due to unnecessary operational impacts, the financial costs involved, and the impracticality of external stakeholder participation.

People are far more willing to learn and participate when their time is respected, especially their personal time. We hear the phrase “work/life balance” a lot, and for good reason; it’s important to take it to heart. We must be as equally respectful of personal time as professional hours. Forcing someone to miss a family activity or waking them up in the middle of the night for the sake of a “realistic” exercise, is both heavy-handed and unnecessary. That’s not to say that a simple notification test shouldn’t be conducted periodically, as it’s a good way to see who is available at a given time, who doesn’t answer the phone, and who may have been missed within the notification system. However, even a simple notification test must be carefully planned to ensure that it does not interfere with the organization’s safe operation. There are work groups that have safety-sensitive roles that involve a required amount of uninterrupted prone rest. If they receive a notification during a rest period, it could result in significant operational impacts the following day, which could lead to equally significant financial and reputational impacts with customers.

When holding a surprise exercise, even during regular work hours, consideration must be given to executives and representatives of other companies that have arranged meetings with your organization, sometimes scheduled months in advance, that require their time and travel. Imagine the reputational consequences of telling those individuals that a surprise exercise is more important than their business meeting. The same holds true for internal meetings and employee travel. Realistically, if in the case of an exercise, most executives would certainly choose to continue with the scheduled meeting to avoid the reputational issues and costs associated with travel cancellations. For this reason, the realism of the surprise exercise would be immediately lost. Rest assured that no executive or employee within an organization facing a serious incident or accident would choose a business meeting or continued travel over an actual response. However, if it’s simply an exercise, even though they recognize its importance, for the sake of practicality, most would follow their normal operational business priorities.

The goal of any organization’s emergency response plan is to compassionately and proficiently respond to an emergency, while maintaining its ability to safely continue its core business. Conducting a well-planned exercise that allows for the greatest number of participants, while still respecting the operational needs of the business and its people, serves as the greatest mechanism for proficiency and enthusiasm of those involved. If people view drills and exercises with personal willingness and interest, rather than as an annoyance or poor use of their time, preparedness becomes a positive cultural activity and viewed with a source of pride and personal responsibility.

An exercise that is planned and known in advance allows for full participation of internal and external stakeholders. Government departments, their agency representatives, first responders, and service organizations are seldom willing to attend a surprise exercise in the middle of the night, on a weekend, or during a recognized holiday. It’s also highly doubtful that external representatives or insurers of the organization would be interested in participating in real time, either. Sadly, without the participation of external stakeholders, the realism of the exercise is again extremely limited.

My best advice when it comes to large exercises is as follows:

  • Allow people to feel prepared, confident, and well-rested.
  • Use primary responders for one exercise, and their alternates for the next, which allows all potential responders an opportunity to gain experience within their department’s response role.
  • Fear of failure or humiliation doesn’t create a willingness for participation.
  • Personal time should be respected. Whenever possible, drills and exercises should be conducted during normal business hours. If personal time is required, provide an acceptable form of compensation and notice well in advance of the exercise.
  • Collective bargaining agreements in the workplace surrounding work/rest hours must always be considered before scheduling drills or exercises to ensure requirements are met.
  • Always include external stakeholders whenever possible. Internal response team members should know and understand the roles of your external stakeholders, their importance, and the flow of information with them during an emergency.
  • Avoid negative operational or needless financial impacts whenever possible with your drills and exercises. There are always ways to achieve a preparedness goal that won’t require a major disruption to your organization or come at a premium cost. Use your skills wisely and respect the priorities of others.
Finally, be confident that if a serious emergency or accident occurs after hours, on a weekend, or during a holiday, your team will respond. Your efforts in building their confidence through training and regular testing, including their strategic priorities, will allow them to shine when most needed. In the meantime, value their time and effort during your drills and exercises by respecting their operational priorities, and their personal and family time. Together, you’ll build a compassionate response culture within your organization that will have the ability to adapt and respond to any emergency situation, no matter when it occurs.