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Put Your Disaster Plan to the Test

Aug. 4, 2010
You may have a disaster plan in place, but you won't know how effective it is - or if it works at all - until you put it into practice

The problem with disasters is that you never know when they're going to happen. Today? Tomorrow? Next year? Never? The only way to deal with them is to prepare for them. Establishing an in-case-of-emergency plan is a necessary first step (see the February 2005 issue of Buildings or read "Make-or-Break Steps for Disaster Preparation" for instructions on how to get started). Once your plan is in place, you've got to put it to the test. And, the best way to do that is to conduct regular disaster-simulation exercises. "It's easy to say that you're going to do all of these things in your plan, but you can't anticipate everything upfront," says Maelyn Arvedon, simulation committee chair at the NorthEast Disaster Recovery Information X-Change (NEDRIX).

Simulation exercises can be carried out in many ways, depending on what you hope to gain from the experience. You can create or host your own exercises to involve those in your building, you can attend regional or national events (via IFMA, for example) with peers, or you can join in a big group setting with a variety of professionals (through organizations like NEDRIX or ASIS Intl.).

Creating Your Own Simulation
Before the event. If you've never tackled a simulation of any kind, calling in an expert would be beneficial. "Rely on someone else who does this for a living for the first exercise or two, until you understand the process, and then you can develop scenarios and manage them on your own," says Jim Rosenbluth, managing director for crisis management at New York City-based Cushman & Wakefield Inc. An expert can help you decide where to start and what type of exercise would be best, and can help you map out a disaster to simulate. As Bob Mellinger, president at Gainesville, VA-based Attainium Corp., points out, you may not have time to generate imaginative (yet realistic) simulations while you're doing your day job.

Picking the Right Simulation

Disaster-simulation exercises span from very basic to very complex, so there's bound to be one that works for you, your staff, your building, your budget, and your level of experience. Once you've tackled the small stuff, you can move on to more advanced exercises.

Start with something like an orientation session or an informal, "sit-down-and-talk-about-it" gathering to discuss a certain event or situation. "It doesn't take much," says Bob Mellinger, president at Gainesville, VA-based Attainium Corp. "Have people sit around and think up scenarios, or just pull them from the newspaper and sit down and talk through them." He also suggests gathering to talk about disasters occurring in other parts of the country and how they would be handled at your organization.

Tabletop exercises, like the one pictured here at an industry event, can help you assess whether you (and your building) are ready for a disaster. COURTESY OF ATTAINIUM CORP.

Tabletop exercises are the next step. "Literally, you sit your team around a table and work through a scenario. Some groups do these in real time; other groups do things in surreal time, where you can advance the clock, creating additional sensitivities to time," says Mellinger. These exercises can be aided with small models of the disaster scene, a video, a voice recording, etc. (although they can be carried out with nothing more than some basic prep work).

If you don't have a full half-day to sit your emergency-management team down and run through a full exercise, conduct one in increments, suggests Kate Thibeault, facilities director/New England for United Kingdom-based Pearson. "If you've got an hour, use the hour and do a portion of it. The next time, take that same exercise to the next step."

After you've successfully attempted tabletop exercises, the next level involves actual simulation. "The idea is to run people through something a little more akin to real life, where the situation changes, moves, and fluctuates," says Mellinger. These exercises occur in real time and utilize more resources (equipment, people, etc.); they are also more costly and more time consuming. You won't want to tackle one of these by yourself.

The most multifaceted approach - one not attempted by many facilities professionals - involves conducting full-scale exercises similar to what the federal government takes on (TOPOFF exercises). "Literally, anything goes," says Mellinger. "They use real facilities and disrupt actual infrastructure. They may even bring people in to act injured or fill a floor with smoke." A full-scale exercise provides a great opportunity to interact with outside organizations (the community, police and fire departments, emergency medical units, hospitals, etc.) and allows you to work with those who will help you in a real emergency.

If you ever do take on a full-scale exercise, it's best that you work well in advance and let any relevant parties know ahead of time (the media, businesses down the street, etc.) so they know the simulation isn't a real disaster situation.

"A lot of big companies develop something and try it out at one site, and then roll out that same thing to other sites. It's like using a business continuity consultant to ‘train the trainer,' " says Kate Thibeault, facilities director/New England for United Kingdom-based Pearson.

If you want to take on an exercise yourself, the first step is to pick a scenario and think about the ways in which it could unfold. It can be something as simple as a gas-main explosion (or something that causes disruption) to something as big as a hurricane, a tornado, or an act of terrorism. "I advise starting really simple," says Thibeault. "The first one my company did was smoke in an electrical closet that became a fire, so it seemed like an everyday occurrence; however, we had someone become injured exiting the building, and then we had reporters come because somebody saw smoke, etc. We unveiled it as we went - don't lay the whole thing out for people in advance." Put together some information about the scenario, listing a description of what happened, any injuries or deaths, damage in or near the building, the time/date of the incident, etc. Pass it out at the event, along with a copy of your organization's disaster plan.

Think about what you want to take away from this exercise. Do you want the emergency-management team to get to know each other and understand their roles? Do you want to see how quickly your tenants can evacuate the building? Are you testing the quickness of decision-making skills? (Or a combination of these things?) Map out objectives and communicate them to those involved. Also, notify participants far enough in advance so they can clear their schedules for the event - but don't give them too much information (you don't want them to prepare in advance).

You'll also want to designate a leader (probably yourself) and a note taker (someone who's good at paying attention, noticing detail, and summarizing). As the leader, you'll want to make sure that all participants comprehend their roles and have enough information to make decisions, that all discussion stays on track, etc. The note taker should write down any issues/problems that arise, as well as any questions and a synopsis of events. This information will be useful after the event is over.

During the event. As the simulation plays out, be observant about what's going on around you. "What you see in an exercise is going to be magnified intensely in a disaster," says Mellinger. Now's the time to watch for glitches. Depending on how comprehensive your exercise is and what aspects of the plan you're testing, you should look for:

  • People who seem confused or lost. Are the tenants/occupants clear about what they're supposed to be doing and where they're supposed to be?
  • A smooth evacuation process. Is the evacuation process going well or are people unsure about where they're going? Did they end up in an interior hallway on the fourth floor instead of across the street?
  • Things you wish you had. Did you need a different kind of flashlight? Would walkie-talkies come in handy? Do the floor wardens need reflective vests to make them easier to see?
  • Missing pieces, or parts of your plan that don't seem to make sense. Did the notification chain of command seem awkward? Are there phone numbers you wish you had that weren't in the plan?
  • People who seem uncomfortable in their roles. Some people are better at handling crisis situations than others. People who panic, run, or freeze aren't the individuals you want stepping forward to act as leaders. During an event that Thibeault attended, she witnessed a participant who really took the experience to heart. "She said, ‘I just can't do this. I have to go home.' Her team learned that she couldn't handle the stress, and they ended up removing her from the team, so there was a real benefit to seeing that happen."
  • After the event. Just as essential as conducting the event is conducting a debriefing session immediately afterward. Mellinger suggests that you involve everyone who was part of the exercise. "Debriefing is crucial after an exercise. You have to sit down and talk about what went well, what went poorly, what you need to fix, what you need to keep, what you need to throw away, and what you will do differently." Now's also the time to go over the information provided by the note taker about the event.

If you walk away from the exercise and into the debriefing session thinking that everything went flawlessly, the exercise probably wasn't hard enough.

Results You Can Count On
Everyone knows that practice makes perfect. In addition to testing your disaster plan, practicing for an emergency raises awareness, develops skill sets, enhances communication, and forces adjustments to be made to the disaster plan in a timely manner.

For those of you who are unconvinced, Rosenbluth makes an interesting point: Take a look at the 9/11 Commission Report (the section on emergency response). "There are numerous interviews with building tenants who reflect on how well-prepared or ill-prepared their companies were to deal with the crisis. One of the key takeaways is that the companies that had actually drilled emergency procedures had a much higher survival rate," he says. Disaster simulations can:

Raise awareness. "A lot of times, until you do the exercise, people have the ‘it-can't-happen-here' mentality," says Don Knox, chairman of the ASIS Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council. Thibeault agrees, talking about how these exercises open the eyes of those who are hesitant to spend much time on disaster preparation: "The first event I attended was about pandemic flu. They actually had an angel of death come and tap you on the shoulder, and you simply had to leave the room," she explains. "I didn't sleep that night — it was that traumatic. We all learned major lessons. People walked away shaking their heads, saying, ‘I had no idea.' "

Develop skill sets. An accountant by trade becomes a floor warden in a time of crisis. Mock exercises give these people a chance to practice their roles, become comfortable with a level of decision-making they may not be used to in their daily jobs, and understand how they might react in an emergency. "Everyone has a role in emergencies - they need to learn it and practice it, and it's very important to do that," says Thibeault.

Mellinger explains that, during a disaster simulation he was once conducting, a tenant literally took control of the response effort halfway through the exercise (even though that wasn't his role). The tenant didn't realize what he was doing until the event was over; he hadn't been thinking about who was in charge or who he was supposed to be listening to. His gut instinct was to take control. "You want to know now if these things are going to happen - you don't want them to happen later," says Mellinger.

Enhance communication. As the building owner or property manager, you have a plan in place that will play out during a disaster. But, there's also a chance that some of your tenants have their own ideas about what will happen in these types of situations. Keep in touch with your tenants to let them know about any changes to the plan, and upgrade accordingly with any info they give you. "That interaction between tenant and building manager is, in my mind, the deciding factor between life and serious injury or death," says Mellinger.

As an example of what can happen when communication goes south, Knox talks about the disaster plans for the Twin Towers and one of their neighboring buildings. It was decided that the tenants in these buildings would gather across the street in another location as part of a mutual-aid agreement. The problem? Neither party was aware that it wasn't the only group planning to congregate there. The space in question held about 2,000 people, but the number of people planning to show up there in an emergency was close to 15,000.

Allow timely adjustments to your plan. Just as important as testing your plan is updating your plan, and a simulation exercise forces you to look at your plans regularly. "People forget about their disaster plans," says Mellinger. "They put them away until something happens and then realize that they're outdated." Out-of-date information is an easy way for your plan to become ineffective. You'll end up looking for someone who doesn't work for you anymore, calling someone whose phone number changed last year, tracking down a tenant that moved out 4 months ago, or trying to find a fire extinguisher that was relocated. "Every time we test it - every single time - there are always overhauls to our plan," explains Thibeault.

One hundred facility executives participated in an emergency-preparedness survey conducted by Boston-based Wentworth Institute of Technology Professor Suzanne Kennedy and Department Head of Design and Facilities Department Victoria Hardy. Results were shared at IFMA World Workplace 2007, including this information on evacuation drills.

Put Preparation First
As Knox points out, you can't really call your disaster plan a real disaster plan unless you exercise it. He calls it a "life-cycle approach." You start by identifying risks, you develop a written plan and create response or recovery procedures, and then you exercise the plan. "As soon as you're done with the exercise, you talk about lessons learned," explains Knox. "The lessons learned take you right back to the beginning of the circle again, because you're going to update your plan based on what you learned in the exercise."

Once you schedule an exercise, you're on your way to ensuring that everyone will be ready when disaster strikes - just pick a timetable that works and stick to it. In some U.S. cities, it's required that a certain number of evacuation/fire drills are conducted per year. Even if you're in a city without those requirements, you should conduct these drills at least once per year. Experts suggest conducting an exercise every 3 months (three smaller exercises and one large exercise each year).

Once you start exercising your plan regularly, not only will you be able to say that it exists and is up to date - you'll also be able to say that it works. "Only property teams that have been through these exercises will really understand how interconnected the various phases of a property are," says Rosenbluth, "and how to bring to bear various skills and capabilities during an incident."

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.

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