Practice Makes Perfect: How to Be Ready to Handle an Emergency 

Many organizations are not well-prepared to respond to emergencies. In most cases, two factors are to blame: a lack of thought on the part of the leadership about what might go wrong and a lack of adequate practice for the employees in responding to emergency scenarios. 

 

A Responsibility to Prepare 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for organizations, being adequately prepared for emergencies can be a matter of life and death.  

During emergencies such as those involving evacuations, medical emergencies, active shooters and the like, lack of preparation causes or worsens panic and confusion. This can lead directly to such events as people’s not receiving prompt assistance when they experience a medical emergency or being injured in evacuations.  

Still, most organizations give short shrift to emergency preparedness and training. Other priorities tend to get in the way. It is natural that organizations focus intensely on carrying out their core missions rather than on emergency preparedness. However, all organizations have a responsibility to protect their employees by making sure adequate emergency plans are in place and that the employees receive sufficient training in following them. 

The Same Old Scenarios 

One common problem we see in organizations’ lack of emergency preparedness is a shortage of imagination about what types of emergencies they are likely to face, locally and enterprise-wide.  

Just as generals have a tendency to prepare for the last war, emergency planners have a tendency to focus on preparing for the last emergency—or else they’ll prepare for an event that was in the news recently.  

This response isn’t necessarily misguided. It might be the case that the scenarios in question are indeed relevant to the organization moving forward. Preparing for them might be advisable. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Planners need to think about which emergencies are most likely to impact their company in the future, based on their industry, location, and unique circumstances. They should guard against letting recency bias or media coverage blind them to other things that might happen or are more likely to happen. 

In a related problem, many organizations get in a rut and focus their plans and preparations on the same two or three scenarios year after year. To get beyond this, planners need to go back to their threat and risk assessments. They should think creatively about the emergencies their company is likely to face based on its particular circumstances and location. Their plans should address a broad range of potential emergencies. Their exercises should be varied, inclusive, and comprehensive. 

The Importance of Practice 

Practice is not only the way to get to Carnegie Hall. It’s also the best way of ensuring that people respond correctly during an emergency. Responding appropriately needs to become a matter of muscle memory on the part of the employees rather than conscious thought. Of the organizations that do invest in emergency preparedness, most focus on writing plans and neglect the need for training. 

Good emergency response plans are great, but during an emergency is no time for people to pull out such plans to see what they’re supposed to do. They need to know and be drilled in the correct response ahead of time. People don’t pull out their SOPs to do their jobs every day and they shouldn’t have to pull out their SOPs to know what to do if someone has a medical emergency, they hear shots fired, or they are ordered to evacuate.  

Practice is not only the way to make correct responses a matter of muscle memory, it is also great for surfacing gaps in planning.  

It’s during practice that people are likely to realize they aren’t sure what “run, hide, fight” means, that some employees and unable to descend five flights of stairs because of mobility issues, or that the company needs to come up with a way to verify that everyone, including visitors, is out of the building following an evacuation.  

Most organizations fall well short of getting the amount of practice they need to surface gaps in their plans and make responding appropriately automatic on the part of the employees. 

Protecting Your People 

Ensuring that staff are adequately prepared to deal with emergencies can be a matter of life and death. Every organization has a responsibility to develop quality emergency response plans and see that its employees receive sufficient training in how to follow them.  

One of the best ways organizations can improve their emergency response capability is to go beyond the obvious scenarios in their planning. Look beyond the issue that is currently in the news. Consider what situations are most likely to occur based on the organization’s industry, location, and staff.  

The other way companies can get better at handling emergencies is to practice doing so. This is the best method for uncovering gaps in planning and inscribing the correct response into the employees’ muscle memory. 

Emergencies happen, but organizations don’t have to leave the quality of their response up to chance. Sound emergency planning and frequent drills are the best ways to protect people’s health and safety. 

Further Reading 

For more information on responding to emergencies and other hot topics in business continuity and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from MHA Consulting and BCMMETRICS: 

About
Richard Long
Richard Long is one of MHA’s practice team leaders for Technology and Disaster Recovery related engagements. He has been responsible for the successful execution of MHA business continuity and disaster recovery engagements in industries such as Energy & Utilities, Government Services, Healthcare, Insurance, Risk Management, Travel & Entertainment, Consumer Products, and Education. Prior to joining MHA, Richard held Senior IT Director positions at PetSmart (NASDAQ: PETM) and Avnet, Inc. (NYSE: AVT) and has been a senior leader across all disciplines of IT. He has successfully led international and domestic disaster recovery, technology assessment, crisis management and risk mitigation engagements.
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