Why your crisis team needs a fire drill

Insight

These days the key test of a crisis team is how quickly they click into gear.

A large company we worked with wanted to test how well they’d respond if their office IT systems went down in an earthquake.  A half-day crisis simulation put their senior leadership teams to the test. Two weeks later, fiction turned to reality: when an actual earthquake brought down their IT network.

The odds of that happening are, of course, remote. But if this experience was remarkable so was the outcome.

At the time, the most striking aspect of the crisis management room was the absence of obvious adrenalin. People felt pressure, but knew what they had to do. No one panicked, or argued about process. Instead, the team worked through their assigned roles, and retrieved their prepared templates and prepared their communications.

It was a reminder of why trainee pilots start out on simulators and medical students on cadavers: it helps a lot if you have done much the same thing a few times before.

The need to test a crisis management plan thoroughly remains constant. Yet in today’s environment of increased cyber-attacks, natural disasters or human failure the ability to respond quickly and effectively in the initial first few hours remains crucial.

With more people working at home you also need to test how readily your team can simply convene, communicate and get underway with a planned response.

Each crisis is unpredictable, although Murphy’s Law* reliably applies.

People may be at different locations (or unavailable), or emails out of action. Your crisis management plan may be stuck in a server you can no longer access.

A half-day or full-day simulation remains the benchmark test for when problems pile up to transform a potentially demanding issue into a bona fide disaster.

But a shorter exercise gives a good pulse-check on how your team will manage the vital first two hours. This is when you are most under stress. Important stakeholders can be forgotten, assumptions overlooked, or irretrievably misguided comments made to the media.

A shorter exercise offers fewer hypothetical threats. But it allows you to make sure your team can connect, and even test an alternative communication network if your own system is down. Team members reconfirm their roles, and make sure updated resources are to hand.

And just like with a real fire drill, they will be ready to act if the alarm does go off.

* "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong".