For utilities, emergency exercises are necessary, but without proper visual tools, can sometimes be deceiving.
When I went to work for an electric utility, one of the first stops on the orientation tour was System Operations. It was impressive. Buried two levels underground, you entered through a vestibule trap equipped with electronic, audio and visual recognition systems for security. For the system operators, hearing the voice of a visitor and seeing them was believing.
Then there was the system board. Almost two stories high, you could see at a glance the status of all the generating and transmission assets spread over thousands of square miles. Again, for the people in SysOps, seeing was believing.
The next stop was Customer Service. Large monitors were hung from the ceiling so that the reps had easy visual access to outage or other information to help them help customers. Once again, seeing was believing.
Of course, there are many other examples, such as emergency operations centers, For their time, these were state-of-the-art art visual aids. And as it turns out, there have always been basic physiological reasons for making sure we fortify our communication efforts with visual support.
So it was a little perplexing to observe multiple recent emergency exercises where visual support media were readily available but not used. Flip charts were available to help display and document decisions, problems or discoveries, but none were ever used. And large flat screen monitors displayed only exercise injects. No maps, no status boards or org charts anywhere.
One particularly complicated technical discussion was confused by a good deal of back-and-forth miscommunication. If the discussion leader had drawn some simple diagrams to illustrate the point he was trying to make, it could have been resolved much more quickly. The flip charts were there and the markers were brand new. Those markers might still be new come the next exercise or real emergency.
Reasons for Utilizing Visual Aids during Emergency Exercises
There are plenty of good reasons to use visuals in a real emergency, so why not consider practicing them during emergency exercises:
- Visually Record and Memorialize: Whether during an emergency exercise or the real thing, issues can arise that deserve to be recorded for immediate action or future reference. Visual records also help get your issues into the debrief or hot wash.
- Invite Discussion and Gain Consensus: It’s hard to have a discussion, gain agreement or act appropriately when people remember only 10% of what you say. Making your concerns and messages visible puts them up for discussion and available for revision on your way to final consensus.
- Illustrate Your Reasoning: Sometimes you need to draw a picture of what you want. During exercises, don’t be afraid to go to the whiteboard or flip chart to diagram your thought process. The more technical things get, the more you need visual aids to make sure everyone stays on the same page.