A 6-Point Checklist for Testing Your Emergency Response Plan

By ETQ on November 10, 2016

We recently wrote about what makes an effective Emergency Response Plan (ERP), and step 5 focused on the importance of drills and exercises. Today, we’re going to talk about what you need to have in place before you exercise your plan, so you can make sure that exercise is productive.

Rather than a tabletop exercise where you simply walk through the plan in the conference room, the focus of this post will be on a functional exercise where everyone actually executes the ERP.

1. Outline Goals and Objectives

Before you begin any project, it’s important to start with your end goals in mind. Goals and objectives might include:

  • Testing evacuation routes and emergency equipment.
  • Ensuring smooth communication between company representatives and local authorities.
  • Verifying that employee training around the ERP is effective.

Your goals will be specific to your organization and the scenario you’re testing. The important thing is that you get clear about why you’re exercising your ERP and what you hope to get out of it.

2. Clarify Roles

Planning an exercise for your ERP begins months in advance, typically in closed-door meetings. In these meetings, you’ll want to outline who the key players are.

Examples include determining who’s responsible for duties like:

  • Incident command.
  • Interacting with outside agencies.
  • Communicating with the public.
  • Coordinating evacuation.

3. Notify Your Staff (or Not)

One important thing to note is that the team responsible for planning and designing the drill may not be the same as those who will execute the drill. There are advantages to keeping it secret, like being able to better assess your team’s response in an actual emergency.

However, this is only something you’d want to do if your emergency response planning is at a fairly mature stage. For teams that haven’t executed these drills before, it may be helpful to notify employees in advance so they can prepare. If this is the case, make sure to send out a calendar invite so everyone is able to participate (unless your scenario involves not having key individuals available).

And regardless of whether you choose to notify employees in advance, it’s important to let them know during the exercise that it’s just a drill so people don’t freak out.

4. Create a Detailed Scenario and Narrative

As you put together your plans, you need to determine the scenario you’re going to use to test your plan. Is it a fire on the plant floor? An unplanned release of hazardous materials? Severe weather event?

In addition to choosing a specific scenario, your narrative should also include any special conditions or circumstances you want to place on the event. For example, if you’re testing your staff’s response to a severe weather event, loss of power might be part of your narrative. Or maybe you want to see how folks think on their own, so you decide to make a key supervisor unavailable for guidance during the drill.

You need to set the scene in order to determine the resources employees will and won’t have access to. Taking the time to plan this out carefully helps create a more realistic scenario, increasing staff engagement while ensuring you have everything you need when it comes time to conduct the drill.

5. Organize Your Resources

Once you’ve done the planning work involved in setting up your ERP drill, you need to finalize the details to ensure you have the resources you need when the day arrives. That’s because one boundary you want to set on your drill is that everyone can only use what’s available on the day of the test.

A few examples of final details you might need to address:

  • Notifying local authorities if you need them to be part of the exercise.
  • Any tech tools you might need, such as a projector, phone setups or mobile access to the EHS Management System.
  • Other physical materials like food, water and printed materials (like a scenario write-up or a physical copy of the ERP).
  • Scenario-specific prep, for example setting up a decontamination area for a chemical spill exercise.

6. Set Expectations

Whether you notify people in advance or not, everyone involved needs to understand the critical importance of treating the drill as a real emergency.

You can’t have people saying, “Oh, I’ll just call so-and-so and they’ll take care of it.” People need to be actively engaged, staying in their role for the duration of the drill and demonstrating how they would actually respond in an emergency.

Ultimately, an ERP drill should be designed to allow people to fail. In fact, that’s the whole point. What you’re doing is creating a safe environment for failure, helping you identify underlying weaknesses and gaps in your plan. Risk Assessment and Corrective Action tools help you fill those gaps, so that your team is truly prepared should you have to put your ERP into action one day.