Planning for a Crisis? Exercise Is Key

By Pamela Babcock Oct 20, 2009
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NEW YORK—A crisis plan gathering dust on your shelf is no good if you never run a drill to see how it works. From a liability standpoint, you might be better off having no plan at all rather than having a plan you’ve never tested, a crisis management expert advised.

“Exercising, in my book, is the most critical part of any preparedness program,” said Charlie McDonald, vice president of Crisis Management International Inc. in Atlanta, to attendees Oct. 14, 2009, at The Conference Board’s Corporate Security, Business Continuity and Crisis Management Conference.

If the first person to be called when the crisis plan is activated retired two years ago, from a liability perspective, “you’re in worse shape than if you didn’t have a plan at all” because “an attorney is going to say, ‘is this your plan…and when is the last time you tested it?’” McDonald said.

In addition, exercises often aren’t sufficiently planned and implemented in a way that truly translates into superior crisis and business continuity response, McDonald said.

What Exercises Can and Can't Do

Crisis plan exercises can help identify gaps, overlaps and interdependencies and help players and teams get more familiar with their responsibilities. They also can help validate and improve plans and increase management commitment, as well as help you meet organizational or regulatory requirements.

But no matter how realistic your exercise, McDonald cautioned that, “it will never actually create the real stress, the real emotion—the panic, the grief and those other emotions –that you would experience in a real crisis.”

What and How to Test

A good exercise should test five response components: activation and notification; information management and communication; resource deployment (including people, facilities and equipment); command and control of supporting teams; and incident documentation for legal and insurance claims, McDonald said.

To make to sure your exercise is of value, McDonald said:

  • The scenario should have “credibility and applicability.”
  • Issues should be specific to each team member.
  • Be challenging but not humiliating. “A lot of times to create stress, we push scenario beyond the credible,” McDonald said. Don’t start with smoke grenades, sirens and volunteers covered with fake blood.
  • Collect information for quantitative and qualitative evaluation.

Four outcomes are possible when you test your crisis plan and there are steps you can take to address each, McDonald said.

The plan was followed and the response was a success. Consider “ratcheting up” the complexity.

The plan was followed and the response was “a disaster.” Seek guidance to revise your plan and “to make a plan that will work.”

Your plan was “no good” and not followed but people adapted and made the response successful. Think about those who encouraged people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11 to evacuate despite recommendations that everyone stay put. Revise your plan using lessons learned.

Your plan was not followed and the response was unsuccessful. Revise your plan and do an additional exercise. “You really have to start from scratch and say ‘maybe we’ve got the wrong people or maybe we’ve got the wrong plan,’” McDonald said.

“If you haven’t worked on this, it’s kind of overwhelming,” said Anne Wills, director of business continuity programs for Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee, who presented a case study. But, she added, “You make progress every year and you look back and [ask], are we more prepared [and] are we more resilient than we were?”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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