Emergency Response Plans: Human Nature vs. The Plan

You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of time and space but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Restoration Plan!

-with apologies to Rod Serling

Submitted for your approval, the utility emergency response plan: The product of weeks, months and years of visionary thought, hard-fought experience, incessant review and countless revisions. Hundreds – even thousands – of gigabytes of digitized information, encased in hard drives, flash drives, CD’s and impressively huge binders recumbent upon groaning bookshelves. The very embodiment of forethought about the optimal response to almost every conceivable emergency situation, as well as a few inconceivables for good measure.

Fat lot of good it is. Seems like whenever we administer an emergency restoration exercise, we’re tempted to remind the participants that perhaps their first action should be to wipe the dust off the binder and open it up. Without fail, someone will ask questions about roles, who to contact, or what to do – answers to which invariably already exist in the Plan.

It’s remarkable to see such valuable advance thinking almost go to waste. Heck, even Wikipedia knows that planning:

  • Increases the efficiency of an organization.
  • Reduces the risks involved in modern business activities.
  • Facilitates proper coordination within an organization.
  • Aids in organizing all available resources.
  • Gives right direction to the organization.
  • Is important to maintain good control.
  • Helps to achieve objectives of the organization.
  • Motivates the personnel of an organization.
  • Encourages managers’ creativity and innovation.
  • Helps in decision making.

With all those benefits, why would anyone fail to, at the very least, take a gander at the parts of the restoration plan that involve them the most? For answers, we dove deep into the ultimate authority on human nature and why things go wrong: Murphy’s Laws.

Murphy’s Law of Thermodynamics: Things get worse under pressure.

Sports coaches know this all too well. It’s why world class athletes, trained relentlessly in the fundamentals, tactics and strategies of the game by the most brilliant coaches and managers can still screw up in pressure situations. Stress kills.

It’s also one of the biggest reasons to hold emergency exercises in the first place: to pressure-test plans, processes, systems and people. Under stress, fundamentals are one of the first factors to fail. So people fall back on past experience, assume they know all they need to know and fail to open the plan to check to see if there is anything new in it that might help. Which leads us to another problem with human nature…

Murphy’s Second Corollary: It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are ingenious.

If you don’t at least try to follow the plan, which may have been updated since the last time you checked, you could wind up jumping to wrong solutions, or reinventing well-established processes that are already being followed by others in the emergency restoration team. Thus proving your own foolishness to the rest of the team.

Face it. emergency response plans are big and, therefore, a bit intimidating to those of us who deliberately shun User’s Manuals because we like to figure things out for ourselves. Besides, stylistically, these plans fall well short of timeless prose. Some of us are already lulled to sleep before we get beyond the Index.

Given our observation of such human behaviors in the utility habitat, here are a few recommendations to consider whenever your team is called together, whether for training, a drill, or the real thing. Think of them as a guide to a pre-game “prep-talk:”

Start With Safety First: Make sure you start every session with a message about Safety, the single most important priority in any restoration.

Next, Brief Your Team: At the outset, when all are assembled, tell everyone to open the plan. Guide your teammates to the checklists and directories they will need in order to execute their responsibilities. You might even want to review problems that arose in previous drills or emergency exercises to make sure the glitches don’t crop up again.

Then Re-brief: Repeat the above whenever you have a shift change. I don’t care what company you work for, knowledge of emergency response plans is not automatic and should never be assumed.

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