Disaster 101: How to Plan and Run a Disaster Exericse (Part 1)

Part 1: Learn how to define objectives, enable communication and create a plan that will bring meaningful knowledge to your company’s response team


With disaster exercises quickly becoming a common tool in managing the risks and uncertainty of today's environment, your organization may be looking at its first exercises or perhaps increasing the frequency and commitment of resources to an existing exercise program. In either case, the need to maintain a disciplined approach that follows sound practices is a must. This article lays out the essential steps and considerations that anyone planning and running a disaster exercise should strive to get right.

Clearly Define and Communicate the Purpose and Objectives

When asking ourselves "Why run a disaster exercise?," the two words most likely to come up are "training" and "testing". It goes to reason that by working through a simulation of a real disaster we can test ourselves and learn from our mistakes. On the other hand, if we think we are already prepared to the fullest extent possible, then an exercise can serve as a forum for proving it to others. And if turns out that we're not fully prepared, we can obtain "on the job" training by being confronted, sometimes harshly, with our inadequacies.

Whether we're out to train and test, or deliver a "show an tell" of sorts, the purpose and objectives of the exercise should be clearly set forth from the onset. Is the purpose to see how well our security force will respond to the discharge of a dirty bomb three blocks from our high-rise building housing senior executives and one of three data centers? Or, are we out to test the real-time decision making and collaboration among our executive team when they are away from the offices – some on business travel and others on vacation? Perhaps the purpose may be far broader, such as to verify that the company's business continuity plan can and will be executed properly and in a timely manner for a wide range of possible disasters. The exercise might then be one element of a comprehensive risk management program that the company has in play.

Communicating the purpose of the exercise should not be overlooked. Like any activity that takes people away from their other duties, a key step in gaining their enthusiasm and full commitment is letting them know how the task serves the greater good. Of course, there is one exception to this rule: if by design, the exercise seeks to test participants without any prior notice, i.e., a surprise kick off.

Choose the Right Type of Exercise

Disaster exercises are classified by several variables. The exercise can be discussion-based and/or operations-based.

Discussion-based: Common exercise types of the discussion-based variety are table-top exercises (TTX), workshops and seminars including webinars. Discussion-based exercises are typically "kicked off" via the reading or recital of a narrative defining the initial state of the disaster and ground rules for the exercise. Table-top exercises are visually aided with a scale model of the disaster scene on a table or other board-like surface that the exercise participants gather around. The scale models may include buildings, vehicles, victims and other elements, that may or may not be moved or altered as the exercise plays out. Discussion-based exercises are commonly used when decision making, analysis, communication and collaboration are of primary interest. As such, discussion-based exercises are generally not used to test the physical deployment of resources or tactical skills such as operation of fire-fighting equipment, logistics or other action-oriented steps.

Operations-based: Operations-based exercises are generally centered around specific functions that may be performed in isolation (e.g., sealing off an HVAC system to outdoor contaminants) or as a collection of inter-dependent functions. An example of the latter is a full-scale exercise which engages multiple resources and operating units that, to varying degrees, interact with each another. Especially in the case of a full-scale exercise, there is likely to be a discussion-based aspect such as the joint-decision making that would be performed by the incident command team. Since operations-based exercises tend to mobilize more resources (equipment, supplies and people) they tend to be more costly and time consuming than discussion-based exercises.

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