Back to basics: Prepare for the hurricane response with a tabletop exercise


Back to Basics is a new weekly feature that highlights important but potentially overlooked information that every EHS professional should know. This week we’re exploring your tabletop exercise with a Hurricane readiness.

You can cover all of your basics when it comes to hurricane preparation, but unless you test how your team works in an actual emergency, you could get into a nasty surprise if a hurricane actually impacts your community. This is why tabletop exercises are so important.

There are several types of exercises you can use to assess your preparedness plans, procedures, and skills, including table exercises; Walkthroughs, workshops or orientation seminars; functional exercises; and exercises in full, according to Ready.gov. Tabletop exercises are discussion-based sessions in which team members meet in a classroom to discuss their roles in an emergency and how they would respond to a particular situation. A moderator leads the participants through one or more scenarios. Many tabletop exercises can be done in a few hours, but it depends on the audience, the subject being practiced, and the goals of the exercise.

According to Ready.gov, exercise is a great way to:

  • Assess the prep program
  • Identify planning and procedural deficiencies
  • Test recently updated procedures or plans
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities of team members
  • Obtain feedback and suggestions for improvement
  • Measure the improvement against the performance goals
  • Improve coordination between internal and external teams, organizations and units
  • Validate training and education
  • Increase awareness and understanding of dangers and their potential effects
  • Assess the capabilities of existing resources and identify all needed.

Go through the scenario

Through his America’s PrepareAthon! Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) campaign published Prepare your organization for a Hurricane Playbook To help companies prepare for the worst. According to the Playbook, the tabletop exercise should begin with an initial scenario description and then follow with three scenario updates. Each phase of the scenario contains questions so that participants can focus on problem-solving as a team.

Once the leadership of your organization agrees to do a tabletop exercise, you need to select a lead planner who will work with the leadership to select the participants, adapt the scenario description and questions to your community and organization, and plan the logistics. A moderator will be selected to lead the exercise discussion, provide updates, and encourage participants to interact. Attendees should include representatives from across your organization, including executives, facility management, communications and public affairs, information technology, corporate security, human resources, and law. Third party providers such as telephone, IT, data backup, food and other services can be included.

The initial scenario is read out to the group. The one in the FEMA Playbook begins with a Category 1,200 hurricane sighting at 8:00 am Monday morning off the coast of your local coast. Category 4 Hurricane. Questions include who is responsible for monitoring this situation and which Information you share with your co-workers what your immediate concerns are and what decisions should be made at this point. This part of the exercise should take 20-25 minutes.

Scenario updates

A scenario update will be read aloud as the storm intensifies and gets closer to land. The governor has declared a state of emergency and issued an evacuation order for the area. Schools and childcare facilities close early, causing many employees to return home or not come to work. Questions are asked about communicating with employees, whether to close the store early or work with a limited number of employees, whether there is a process to consider employees and visitors, and what decisions need to be made at this point (including is there a alternative location to work from, employees can work remotely and operations must be closed before the premises can be vacated). This should take 20-25 minutes.

In the second scenario update, the storm hit land as a Category 4 hurricane 10 miles south of your community. Floods and damage to homes and businesses have been reported. Questions are asked about immediate measures and priorities, communication with employees, the continuation of the company and preparation of the workplace for wind or flood damage. This update should take 10-15 minutes.

The third update is read and describes how the storm is weakening. Large parts of the community are without electricity, there is considerable flood damage and your business is so badly damaged that it is no longer operational for three weeks. Questions include whether there are options to continue operations, can you access copies of important documents (e.g. insurance papers, financial information, important business documents), and communicating with employees about the work status and expectations of those who can’t work. This should take 20-25 minutes.

After completing the exercise, you will need to do a debriefing and follow-up plans as per the playbook. This includes reviewing the exercise and identifying next steps. Topics to discuss include what weaknesses the exercise revealed, unexpected problems arose, what gaps were identified, high priority issues that should be addressed, new ideas and recommendations for improvement, and whether the objectives of the exercise have been met.

Follow up

The playbook recommends following up the exercise by addressing the gaps identified and recommended improvements by the team in a timely manner. The leadership should create a plan that lists the issues to be addressed, who is responsible for the tasks, and when they will be resolved.

You should develop or update your company’s emergency response plan and test it at least once a year.

About Mike Crayton

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