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

Bigger Isn't Always Better

Another variable to consider when choosing the exercise is the number of participants. This number can range from one to many. The one-person exercise may be an effective way of testing an executive's decision making skills for specific disaster scenarios presented through a computer-based disaster simulation tool. In this case, the entire simulation could be conducted through the executive's computer, including recording and evaluation of his or her decisions and proposed actions.

Exercises comprising more than one participant are appropriate when the exercise's objectives call for joint decision making, activities that naturally involve groups of people (e.g., fire brigade), or the collaboration of otherwise independent groups (e.g., plant engineering and security). One important consideration for multi-participant exercises is location. Specifically, where will the participants be located during the exercise? If the exercise includes the company's executive team, one must determine if it will be practical (and realistic) to have them all in a single conference room or scattered across the company's offices, on vacation, at trade shows, in airports, and so on. In the non-colocated case, technology may be the key to success; For instance, presenting the disaster scenario through mobile devices such as personal digital assistants and pagers may be the only practical way of engaging the busy executives.

One final consideration in deciding on the type of exercise is the desired level of realism. If achieving the highest level of realism is your top priority then it is unlikely that a discussion-based exercise will suffice. Operations-based exercises, however, do not necessarily provide realistic disasters; Careful attention will surely be needed to create the "atmosphere" of a live disaster. As with many interactive experiences, the cost of achieving such realism may quickly become prohibitive. The cost-benefit should be weighed carefully.

The Scenario Makes a Difference

The disaster scenario defines the nature of the disaster, key events that occur during the disaster, the location or locations, and the time frame over which the disaster takes place. In effect, the scenario is the centerpiece of the exercise. And because of this, choosing the right scenario can make an otherwise mediocre exercise a memorable and valuable experience for its participants.

Some rudimentary criteria to consider when defining the scenario are:

(1) Should the scenario represent a disaster that is most likely to occur (in relation to other possible disasters) or should it focus on less likely disasters?,

(2) What level of impact, or devastation, should the chosen disaster present (e.g., a 2-hour power outage versus a tsunami hitting a coastal data center)?, and

(3) what time period should the disaster span (longer durations tend to be more taxing on participants)?

Collectively, these and other scenario design criteria can determine how relevant the exercise will be to day-to-day activities and how difficult the exercise will be for the participants.

Scheduling – "Let there be no surprises, maybe!"

A well-orchestrated exercise would arguably have all people, facilities and activities lined up and communicated to in advance so that when the exercise starts, everything goes exactly as planned. While such perfection may be elusive, the importance of scheduling and properly communicating to all involved can't be emphasized enough. At the backbone of an exercise schedule will be a detailed timeline of events, resources involved (people, equipment, facilities, supplies, and information), roles and interdependencies between individuals and/or groups. Key roles would include participants and perhaps others such as an exercise director or coordinator, facilitator (if discussion-based), role-playing victims, observers and various other support personnel, depending on the size and type of the exercise. Analytical tools and visual aids (e.g., work break down structures, Gantt charts, task-on-arrow charts, resource loadings, etc.) can also assist in the scheduling process.