Emergency Exercises Like Just Another Drill

It’s no secret that the world can be volatile and violent. Shootings and bombings in public places. Floods, fires, droughts, and other dangers amid an uptick in severe-weather events. Any of these could be a threat to your organization, its people, its customers, and its suppliers. And although senior executives contemplate the likely impact of these phenomena in risk-analysis meetings, far fewer take the time to participate in real drills, instead designating someone else as a stand-in. After all, it’s tough to get an operational dry run on the calendar of a CEO, CFO, or other executive.

That is an enormous mistake. Executives who let someone stand in during practice set themselves and their teams up for failure when the worst happens: The first crisis may be beyond your control, but that is not the case with the second, highly avoidable crisis that results from a fumbled response. Participating in a rigorous, well-crafted, scenario-based drill is the closest you’ll get to experiencing the emotional tension and challenging ambiguity of an actual event that may involve fatalities, skittish investors, and intense media scrutiny. I’ve seen many occasions in which seasoned executives who start an exercise confident, even joking, wind up sweating amid the flurry of high-stakes decisions to be made in a response drill.

If you are a senior leader, you don’t need to attend every exercise, but you should make time for at least one in your calendar each year. It is the only way you’ll know what to expect in a true emergency — and the only way you’ll be able to judge whether those engaged in the nitty-gritty of the response are capable of succeeding.

An exercise is your chance get to know your emergency team, how it works, and where you fit in. It is also a chance to ask seemingly naive questions. If you are wondering about something, chances are someone else is, too. A drill will likely trigger important realizations or gaps you wouldn’t have known needed to be addressed had you not been in attendance. It will provide a real window into not only what a crisis might look like, but what the recovery will be in the weeks after.

Here are three frames to help you get the most from your investment of time.

Understand the operational rhythm (and how not to impede it). The first 20 to 30 minutes of any response will be chaos. Incomplete and sometimes conflicting information will be flying around. Resist the temptation to try to assert control — the easiest way to create chaos is to take command when you aren’t fully versed in the plans and protocols the response team members are using. Instead, watch to see how long it takes for the team to get into an operational “battle rhythm” in which the team members are effectively processing information, making or elevating decisions, and taking appropriate actions. What you can do at this point is ask how you can be useful.

A critical benefit of taking part in an exercise is trust building with security and safety managers with whom you might otherwise not have much chance to interact. In an actual incident, you’ll need to count on them, and they’ll need to be comfortable with you.

Learn what questions you’ll want answered. A good drill exposes gaps that lead to learning. For example, in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, where I did several days of field research, responders were prepared to provide Gulf-wide information on resource allocation — but elected officials wanted those details on a state-by-state and parish-by-parish level. An enormous effort was required to retool the mechanisms for more detailed reporting on resource allocation. That need could have been learned of and addressed ahead of time had those officials attended more drills.