Emergency Preparedness Drills

Steve Wilder , Stan Szpytek , Calvin Groeneweg


October 1, 2011

Preparedness drills allow individuals and organizations to test disaster plans, train staff, residents and family members, and identify where the plan requires improvement. It is important to realize a plan is always a work in progress and needs continual updating and maintenance. Drills help identify where these updates are needed, and to be successful, they should be broken into smaller, "bite-sized" pieces that can later be put together to create an exercise.

There are three basic types of drills. A tabletop drill is a facilitated analysis of an emergency situation in an informal, stress-free environment. It is designed to elicit constructive discussion as participants examine and resolve problems based on existing operational plans while identifying where those plans need to be refined. The success of the exercise is largely determined by group identification of problem areas. There is minimal attempt at simulation in a tabletop exercise. Equipment is not used, resources are not deployed, and time pressures are not introduced. This is the simplest type of exercise to conduct in terms of planning, preparation and coordination. Every organization has the resources to conduct a tabletop drill.

The functional drill simulates an emergency in the most realistic manner possible, short of moving real people and equipment to an actual site. As the name suggests, its goal is to evaluate the capability of one or more functions in the context of an emergency event.

A full-scale drill is as close to the real thing as possible. It is a comparatively lengthy event that takes place on location, using, as much as possible, the equipment and personnel that would be called upon in a real event. If you can pass this test with flying colors, you can be confident that your company will fare better than most in an actual catastrophe.

Drills should also involve community emergency response and public safety agencies whenever possible. For example, if you are drilling for a potential workplace violence incident and your plan incorporates the response of local law enforcement, consider inviting police officers to participate in the planning stage. You will be surprised what a great resource local community agencies can be in developing a plan.

There can be no dispute that drills require planning. In fact, a company's emergency operation procedures should actually include four areas: planning, response, mitigation and recovery. All four of these are critical components of an effective emergency preparedness procedure, yet most drills typically only focus on response. We pay lip service to mitigation but seldom practice it. (When was the last time you actually practiced hands-on evacuation skills?) And we drill the recovery phase by saying "nice job people, now please return to your work stations." As residents living near flooded Missouri River shorelines will attest, recovery is one of the most difficult steps, but is usually the least practiced.

None of us want to imagine a disaster the size and proportion of what we have seen in the Midwest this year. But regardless of geographic location, every organization is vulnerable to some type of equally harrowing event and must be prepared.
Steve Wilder, BA, CHSP, STS, is president of Sorensen, Wilder & Associates (SWA), a health-care consulting group based in Champaign, Illinois.
Stan Szpytek is the president of Fire and Life Safety, Inc. based in Mesa, Arizona, and a consultant for Magnolia LTC Management, Inc.
Calvin Groeneweg, RN C-AL, is the director of the risk management department for Magnolia Management Service, Inc.