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Leaders Can’t Treat Emergency Exercises Like Just Another Drill

Avoid fumbling the response to a crisis by fully participating in on-the-ground trainings.

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.

Executives who let someone stand in during practice set themselves and their teams up for failure.

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.

In another example, a company knew it had employees in the vicinity of a mass-casualty event. It activated its text-and-email-based system for checking on its people because getting an accurate count of “known safe” and “at risk” personnel was a top priority. However, as it was after work hours, far fewer people responded than expected. The team learned that additional training on the importance of responding was required — the company could do its best to help employees in harm’s way only if it knew who was affected by the attack. Furthermore, if that’s the kind of information you will want in an emergency, you’d best have a system in place and make sure it’s regularly tested.

A good exercise also exposes opportunities and the chance to test them. For example, defibrillators are standard emergency devices, but does your facility also have tactical medical and “stop the bleeding” kits that can be critical to saving lives? Have you offered first-aid training to employees? Is the communications capability among security personnel, leaders, and employees sufficient?

It is also a good time to check on communication lines with local police and fire departments, and with other first responders. Have those people been to your facility? Are entry and access routes planned — and do they conflict with likely escape routes? Is there a “go kit” with master keys and access passes for law enforcement? Fire departments have long had such tools, but with the increase in active-shooter incidents, they have also become necessary for police.

Decide what recovery will look like. The response to a crisis is just the first phase. Recovery takes longer and likely will require more executive involvement. The best-prepared organizations are beginning to conduct recovery exercises to test their plans for a week or two after an incident. This is where you can ask yourself, for example, how you will make it safe for employees and customers to come back. How far are you willing to go to take care of employees and their families?

One company with which I’ve worked had a new employee wounded in a mass shooting. The person was not yet eligible for the company’s health plan and was facing extensive medical expenses. It took some debate among the company’s executives to decide what to do. In the end, they opted to cover the bills — out of concern for both the individual and morale throughout the company. They also learned that they’d rather think through those decisions before they were confronting an actual incident.

After the drill, participate not only in the immediate post-run-through evaluation but also in the full debrief so that you can be sure that lessons learned are translated into changes made. There is nothing like a top executive endorsing an idea to catalyze action.

You are always busy. It can seem both easy and efficient to delegate a crisis-response drill to someone else. But the only way you can fully contribute to crisis planning and know what will truly be expected of you should the worst occur is to take the time to prepare.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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