Emergency Drills and Exercises for Utilities

Emergency Drills

“What are we talking about? We’re talking about practice, man.  I mean, how silly is that?”

Allen Iverson, May 7, 2002

Emergency drills are practice.  While I’m not so sure about the phrase, ‘practice makes perfect,’ I do know that it’s darn near impossible to master a routine, task or skill without practicing.  And this has been the case since Day #1 – literally.  We all had to be potty trained before we could ditch the diapers, we all needed to practice riding a bicycle before we could ride one without breaking any bones, and we all needed 1-on-1, hands-on training to learn how to drive.  And the list goes on and on.

Simply put, learning and then practicing is a fundamental necessity if we want to continuously improve ourselves and be the best we can possibly be.  In the utility industry, training is the foundation of emergency preparedness, and conducting emergency drills and exercises is the tactical execution of the training process.  These activities help organizations evaluate their emergency response plan strengths and weaknesses, identify process gaps, validate recent procedural changes, clarify roles, assess resource capabilities, and improve internal and external coordination.  Exercises and drills enable employees – especially second role employees – to be pressure-tested so they can fully understand how they are to function in an emergency.

Emergency Drills vs. Exercises

First and foremost, let’s clarify the distinction between an exercise and a drill.  A drill is typically operations-based, is narrower in scope than an exercise, and is primarily designed to help employees practice specific tasks or routines related to their role or functional area.  It’s akin to members of the school basketball team running “suicide drills” during basketball practice to improve running speed and endurance.

Exercises are broader in scope.  These typically present a hypothetical emergency scenario (hurricane, earthquake, large-scale terrorist attack, biochemical emergency, etc.) designed to encourage employees to think on their toes, work together, and apply lessons learned from drills.  To continue with the sports analogy, this is sort of like playing a scrimmage during basketball practice, one goal of which would be to run offensive play formations so teammates can practice working together to react to, and counterattack, defensive formations and strategies.

More specifically, exercises and drills for emergency planning can be segmented into 4 specific types:

  1. Operations-based exercise – A drill designed to validate procedures, clarify roles and identify operational process gaps.
  2. Tabletop exercise – A roundtable type of session administered by a facilitator where team members meet to discuss their roles and share observations regarding a simulated emergency scenario.  It’s designed to test each team’s ability to refer and react to its section’s role in the emergency plan as well as team members’ readiness to communicate with other teams as needed.  These usually run a few hours in duration.
  3. Functional exercise – An exercise whereby employees perform their duties in a simulated emergency environment, broken down into hundreds of individual “message inserts,” which simulate realistic problems that need to be addressed, and are observed in order to validate readiness. Functional exercises typically focus on specific team members and/or procedures, and are often used to identify process gaps associated with multi-agency coordination, command and control.
  4. Full-scale exercise – Similar in execution to a functional exercise, this is as close to the real thing as possible and could include employees from multiple functions, community first responders, local businesses, and regulatory agencies.  This type of exercise should utilize, to the extent possible, the actual systems and equipment that would be dispatched during a real event.  From a duration standpoint, full-scale exercises often take place over the course of an entire business day.

Defining the Objectives

All utilities have some sort of training program in place, but oftentimes the overall strategy as it relates to emergency drills and exercises is not as effective as it could be.  This is most often due to a failure to adequately define objectives.  A utility’s exercise and drill program should describe the annual objectives that need to be achieved along with the corresponding type and quantity of exercises that will fulfill the objectives.

Having clear and unambiguous objectives is a critical success factor because they help guide the execution and set expectations by defining what to teach and how to assess what has been learned.  Having a lack of defined objectives is like hiking without a compass or map.  Said another way, creating training content before optimizing objectives would be like developing tactics before the strategy.

So step #1 is to go back to the beginning and conduct a thorough analysis and needs-assessment of the company’s storm roles.  Most likely, these roles have evolved over time, so it’s probably a good idea to look at things from a fresh perspective anyway.  Doing this helps flesh out training needs, which provides the framework for the development of the objectives and, subsequently, the content and structure of the training.  Generally speaking, objectives have 3 elements:

  1. Performance – Defines what each trainee needs to perform
  2. Conditions – Defines how performance will be measured
  3. Standards – Defines what constitutes acceptable performance

Putting It All Together

Once the training needs and objectives have been clearly defined, the execution of drills and exercises can be planned.  Most utilities conduct exercises and drills several times a year, but as you might imagine, the exact structure and sequence is going to be company-specific.  That said, a typical first step would be to conduct orientation sessions to familiarize employees with the overall Emergency Response Plan (ERP), and review roles and responsibilities.  This would generally be followed by one or more tabletop exercises, as well as a broader functional or full-scale exercise conducted annually to put it all together and verify that everything taught previously has been retained and is being applied.  Finally, don’t forget to include a process in the plan to solicit feedback from all participants after each emergency drill, and evaluate the training plan annually to determine whether objectives were met and to reveal opportunities for improvement.

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