Back to Basics, Emergency Preparedness and Response

Back to Basics: Get Ready for Hurricane Response With a Tabletop Exercise

Back to Basics is a new weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine using a tabletop exercise to test your hurricane preparedness.

hurricane preparedness

When it comes to hurricane preparedness, you can have all your bases covered, but if you don’t test to see how your team works in an actual emergency, you could be in for a rude surprise when a hurricane actually bears down on your community. That’s why tabletop exercises are so important.

There are several types of exercises you can use to evaluate your preparedness plans, procedures, and capabilities, including tabletop exercises; walkthroughs, workshops, or orientation seminars; functional exercises; and full-scale exercises, according to Ready.gov. Tabletop exercises are discussion-based sessions in which team members meet in a classroom setting to go over their roles during an emergency and how they would respond to a particular situation. A facilitator guides participants through one or more scenarios. Many tabletop exercises can be run in a few hours, but it depends on the audience, the topic being exercised, and the goals of the exercise.

According to Ready.gov, exercises are a great way to:

  • Evaluate the preparedness program
  • Identify planning and procedural deficiencies
  • Test recently updated procedures or plans
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities of team members
  • Gather feedback and recommendations for improvement
  • Measure improvement compared to performance objectives
  • Improve coordination between internal and external teams, organizations, and entities
  • Validate training and education
  • Increase awareness and understanding of hazards and their potential impacts
  • Assess the capabilities of existing resources and identify any needed ones

Running through the scenario

Through its America’s PrepareAthon! Campaign, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released Prepare Your Organization for a Hurricane Playbook to help businesses 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 includes questions to allow participants to focus on problem-solving as a team.

Once your organization’s leadership agrees to conduct a tabletop exercise, you will need to select a lead planner, who works with leadership to select participants, adjusts the scenario description and questions to fit your community and organization, and plans logistics. A facilitator is picked to lead the exercise discussion, provide updates, and prompt participants to interact. Participants should include representatives from across your enterprise, including senior leadership, facilities management, communications and public affairs, information technology, corporate security, human resources, and legal. Third-party vendors such as phone, IT, data backup, food, and other services may be included.

The initial scenario is read aloud to the group. The one in the FEMA playbook begins with a Category 1 hurricane being spotted 200 miles off the coast of your local shoreline on Monday at 8 a.m. The hurricane is gaining strength and projected to make landfall within 72 hours, and forecasters are warning it could become a Category 4 hurricane. Questions include who is responsible for monitoring this situation, what information are you sharing with your employees, what are your immediate concerns, and what decisions should be made at this time. This portion of the exercise should take 20-25 minutes.

Scenario updates

A scenario update is read aloud, as the storm gathers strength and gets closer to making landfall. The governor has declared a state of emergency and issues an evacuation order for the area. Schools and childcare facilities are closing early, so many employees are asking to return home or are not coming to work. Questions are asked about communicating with employees, whether to close the business early or to operate with a limited number of employees, if there is a process to account for employees and visitors, and what decisions need to made at this time (including is there an alternate site to operate from, can employees work remotely, and do any operations need to be shut down before the premises can be vacated). This should take 20-25 minutes.

In the second scenario update, the storm has made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane 10 miles south of your community. Flooding and damage to homes and businesses has been reported. Questions are asked about immediate actions and priorities, communications with employees, whether the business continues to operate, and is the workplace prepared to manage wind or flood damage. This update should take 10-15 minutes.

The third update is read, detailing how the storm is weakening. Large parts of the community are without power, there is significant flood damage, and your business is damaged to the point where it will not be operational for three weeks. Questions include asking if there are options to continue operations, can you access copies of vital documents (e.g., insurance papers, financial information, key business documents), and communication with employees about work status and expectations for those who cannot work.  This should take 20-25 minutes.

After the exercise concludes, you need to debrief and establish follow-up plans, according to the playbook. This involves reviewing the exercise and identifying next steps. Among the issues to discuss are what weaknesses did the exercise reveal, unanticipated issues that arose, what gaps were identified, high-priority issues that should be addressed, new ideas and recommendations for improvement, and whether the exercise’s objectives were met.

Follow-up

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

You should develop or update your organization’s emergency operations plan and test it at least annually.