When it comes to crisis preparedness, companies are faced with a dilemma:  how much should be invested to prepare for an eventuality that has a low probability of occurring, but may have huge consequences?  Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple as preparedness consists of many elements, all related and necessary to managing risk and responding successfully in times of crisis.

In my experience, when companies try to find the best balance between protecting themselves and using resources strategically, they fall into one of several pitfalls.

The Dusty Plan
Something happens and an emergency response plan is hastily created, or revamped.  An expert is brought in to write the plan, which is then rolled out via a frenzy of orientation sessions or more in-depth training.  It is then placed on a shelf and forgotten. Personnel move on, contact numbers become out-of-date, operations change, and when the next emergency happens, the plan is seen to be inadequate, which sparks the next frenzy of rewriting. The cycle begins anew.

Training by PowerPoint
To meet required training frequencies, employees are subjected to an off-the-shelf training presentation, such as the Incident Command System (ICS) 100/200/xxx suite.  These sessions are generally of low quality and are delivered to a passive audience, in the hopes that sitting people in a classroom for a few hours will equip them to respond to any crisis situation.

Training is a tabletop discussion
Team members get together for half-a-day, once or twice a year with a facilitator who leads them through a scenario and the response.  Participants focus on what issues need to be resolved, and jump into a discussion of tactical actions, often without setting any response objectives, without looking at their plans, and without focusing on their individual roles. Any lessons are only related to that specific scenario. There is no process that sets objectives and best practices.

Training is an annual exercise
Sometimes used in combination with Training by PowerPoint, or Training is a Tabletop Discussion, this approach puts most of the training eggs in one expensive basket.  Employees get hands-on practice responding to a simulated incident with real-life conditions and actors.  With minimal training, responders get thrown into the deep end of the pool and have little time or wits to remember their swimming techniques.  Although this approach is better than the Training by PowerPoint approach, it is very inefficient and expensive.

Competence equals course completion
Many companies make course completion the only requirement for assessing a team member’s competence.  Although this is administratively easy and doesn’t require any difficult conversations, it doesn’t actually ensure personnel can respond appropriately during a crisis.  There are a variety of competencies and skills that are required from members of a crisis team and even though training may be designed to teach such skills, it doesn’t ensure they are used effectively.  For this reason, membership on a crisis team should be competency based, not course-completion based.

The Solution

You still need a good plan
An effective, living, plan is the foundation of any emergency preparedness program.  This includes the necessary initial investment of assessing risk and writing a plan designed to respond to the identified risks. However, it also needs to include a system for update and renewal.  Although this is not a revolutionary concept and most companies talk about updating their plan, a strong administrative process is required to ensure it happens.

Good training is key
A comprehensive training strategy enables personnel to be able to effectively use the plan.  It focuses on hands-on practice – the actual actions of assessing the incident, setting objectives and strategies, building and leading the team – forcing participants to practice managing the emergency. They then use the necessary tools, such as the plan or the Incident Command System, to achieve a successful response.

In just a few hours a few times a year, skills and knowledge remain active in the minds of personnel.  It also energizes personnel and acts as mini-team building exercise. Such an approach takes skills developed and refines them further.  It also enables improved facilities, communications, and other aspects of response that may be difficult to work on in isolation.

Assess competency
Merely finishing a course or training session isn’t enough to make someone a good responder.  Personnel need to demonstrate, through their training sessions, practice exercises and real crises, that they have the necessary skills to respond well.  This requires that the company identify the hard and soft skills it believes are needed and be willing to have constructive conversations with personnel who still need to develop these skills before joining the team.  Creating competency matrices, measurable performance requirements and standardized response assessment tools enables companies to determine who is competent and to defend such decisions.

Vlad Grigore is a vice-president in our Calgary office with a focus on emergency response planning, training and strategy.