We all know the expression “Practice makes perfect!”
It’s the reason that football teams run plays, basketball players practice foul shots, and golfers go to the driving range. Not until recently have we had scientific validation of this intuitive belief. Dr. Eric Kandle of Columbia University has proven that if you don’t practice a skill, you lose your performance ability. In 2000, Kandel won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with Aplysia – a sea slug that is a darling of neuro-physicists. While growing to be one foot long, Aplysia only have about 20,000 nerve cells, as compared to billions in the human brain. Aplysia’s simple brain structure allowed Kandel and his colleagues to study how memories are created and stored.
Kandel found (among other things) that if an area of knowledge or skill isn’t periodically refreshed or exercised, it fades away. This is one reason why people who speak a language as a child may only be able to recollect a few words or phrases years later if they haven’t spoken or read it in the meantime. In fact, further research suggests that skill loss can begin in as little as ninety days.
This need to refresh our skills applies to many endeavors including preparedness training and is one reason for having periodic emergency training exercises.
Experience suggests that the advantage isn’t limited to individuals. Organizations can benefit from a program of regular preparedness training. Some of this value can be traced to better task execution by individual actors. However, giving groups an opportunity to use emergency communication protocols and non-standard information sharing procedures is clearly beneficial to group-level preparedness.
Types of Exercises
The two major categories of preparedness planning exercises are discussion-based activities and operation-based events.
Discussion-based activities familiarize employees and participants with emergency management plans and recovery strategies. Generally lasting from an hour to a day, these exercises are relatively inexpensive to conduct and aren’t very disruptive to operations. Examples include employee briefings and seminars, plan reviews/walk-throughs, and tabletop exercises.
Of these, tabletops are the most popular and generally involve a group of from ten to fifty employees and managers who react to a crisis scenario as it unfolds over several hours. These are guided activities managed by a facilitator who keeps events moving and takes note of issues or areas of confusion that arise during the exercise.
Computer simulations are becoming an affordable and practical discussion-based option for commercial organizations. Expect future versions of these gaming models to be enhanced by elements of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
Operation-based events require considerably more planning than discussion activities and involve a larger commitment of resources.
There are three types of operation-based preparedness events: drills, functional exercises, and full-scale exercises.
Drills are single-purpose, coordinated events that test a specific procedure or strategy’s efficacy. Evacuation and shelter-in-place drills are examples.
Functional exercises validate the effectiveness of command and control procedures. Often these exercises are communications-intensive and test an organization’s ability to exchange information with outside stakeholders such as local police or EMS. Functional exercises impose little interference to business operations but significantly enhance an organization’s relations with key support partners.
Full-scale exercises require a significant resource commitment and may last a day or more. Participants follow a scenario where the business shuts down normal operations and resumes using backup equipment or by relocating to an alternative operating site. Employees are asked to act as if their primary worksite is disrupted or unavailable and are expected to follow the prescribed emergency response procedures.
In all cases, the decision to sponsor a preparedness exercise requires thoughtful planning and management support. The Red Cross has helpful tools to establish an exercise plan including the Preparedness Calendar Tool, part of the Ready Rating™ Program.
More useful information on training exercises and preparedness can be found in other parts of the Ready Rating Resource Center.
To keep a skill, you must practice. Keeping your Ready Rating assessment current is one way of coordinating all the emergency preparedness plan components and ensuring that when the need arises, your employees have the knowledge and confidence to execute your plan.