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Volume 31, Issue 2

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The emergency evacuation drill is something familiar to everyone. It has been embedded in our routines since grade school when we followed the teacher outside and lined up on the playground. In the adult world, most organizations conduct at least one emergency evacuation drill per year, but in today’s environment it is no longer considered child’s play.

Traditionally, business continuity planners build a plan, and then test it. These tests usually include an emergency evacuation drill. But by turning the tables and testing first, then building or updating the plan later, planners can gain valuable insight into plan information and the awareness of business continuity planning (BCP) in their organization.

The emergency evacuation drill offers this unique opportunity. By testing evacuee reaction to the event and capturing their innate knowledge of “what to do next,” continuity planners can affirm their current plan as well as build awareness.

For new continuity programs, this approach can kick start the awareness process as well as reveal vital plan components such as: business subject matter experts, mission critical plan elements, candidates for crisis management, the real chain of command, and how business disaster assessments are made. In mature BCP organizations, an evacuation drill is a real-time way to judge the assessment, activation, and command-and-control portions of the plans. Evacuation drills can show the business continuity planner how employees react to a serious disruption in basic, gut-level terms.

 


People First

In order to successfully evaluate an evacuation drill, organizations should conduct two distinct types of tests. The first test should focus on safety issues and people. The second should focus on building and evaluating the plan.

To conduct the first type of test, initiate the evacuation drill (for all or selected portions of the building). Planners should evaluate the smooth evacuation to a safe assembly area as well as the effective communication among evacuees. On return to the building, require each evacuee to answer a simple survey. Ask the following questions:

 

- Did you know where to assemble outside the workplace? If not, where did you go?
- Did your on-site visitors evacuate with you?
- Was there a person at each assembly location in charge of the site?
- Were all the people expected at the assembly point actually there? How did you check this?
- How long are evacuees expected to stay at the assembly location if it’s only a drill?
- How did you know it was safe to return to work after the drill was over?

Next, the planner should review and summarize the opinions and data to create actionable improvements in the evacuation process. The emphasis should be on the positives, such as maintaining co-worker safety and improving communication. The planner should ensure that one or more assembly locations are clearly designated at a safe distance from the workplace and that assembly captains (those responsible for accounting of employees in an assembly area) are equipped with lists of expected evacuees. In addition, the planner should determine if the captains were able to communicate effectively with company incident management personnel and other employees.

Any suggested improvements should be documented and the evacuation should be retested within one month of the initial drill. Repeat the survey with returning evacuees to validate the improvements.

Drilling for Details

The second test builds on the evacuation scenario. It tests how employees respond to an evacuation, how they will organize to assess the impact of the scenario on the business, and how they will determine when to take action to recover the business.

This type of plan can be conducted as a second phase of an evacuation drill or as a stand-alone test that starts with a simulated evacuation. Participation in this type of test should be limited to a segment of the business to improve focus on that segment’s responses and to make effective use of their time away from their normal work responsibilities. Consider the employees assigned to a particular floor of the building or selected departments as participants.

First, initiate an “in place” evacuation (i.e. to another in-door location on campus or another portion of the building). Instruct assembly captains to act as if this was an outside evacuation, using normal procedures to complete the employee accounting and welfare phase.
Next, the person playing the role of incident commander liaison updates the assembly captains with new information about the event. The assembled evacuees will be asked to imagine they are outside at their normal assembly locations and the building has experienced a significant disaster (bomb, fire/flooding, etc.).

Query the evacuees with a paper survey, emphasizing the need for brief, “to the point” responses to the following questions:

- Which of you know/suspect you’ll be needed to make business recovery decisions?
- If there is a formal business continuity plan covering your area, do you have it with you?
- Given this news, would you just head home or to another safe location?
- How long would you wait at the assembly point to get more instructions or information?
- You were supposed to be meeting a client in 90 minutes. What do you tell him? How do you communicate?
- The media are looking for disaster tidbits from evacuees. What do you do? What do you say?
- How would you find out about your company’s perspective or position regarding the disaster? Should you plan on returning to work later or the next day?
- How would you report your availability to the company?
- Even if you’re healthy and available to work, what tools do you have? What do you need? Where would you go?

Those who answered “yes” to the first question should be asked to stay for a follow-up session. Drill down to capture their first impressions or instinctive actions in response to the following questions. Emphasize that first impressions matter – even if the evacuees have documented business continuity plans, ask them not to read from their plans, but speak from their experience or offer an educated guess. Keep it high level and record notes as the session progresses.

1. What roles would each of you expect to play? Why?
2. Who else would you need to be in contact with to make reasonable decisions?
3. Where would you go to assess the situation? Why?
4. To what person/group would you communicate your assessment and plan of action? Why?
5. What are the first business processes or functions you’d be trying to recover? Why?
6. What resources do you need immediately to start putting the pieces back together?

Ready to Plan

With the tests concluded, organize the session responses into the elements of the business continuity plan to which they are being compared or those that are being drafted. Capture and compare information such as recovery team objectives, roles and membership, escalation conditions and decision makers, critical business processes, outage timing, and potential command center and assembly locations.

Develop a set of post-test action items to build on what has been discovered. Circulate it to participants and related management levels for validation and, more importantly, to prove the worth of this and future tests.

For organizations new to BCP, the results of this test can be used to form a skeletal outline of a continuity plan. More sophisticated plans can and should be built on this base. However, if a disaster happened today, the lessons learned from both tests can form a valuable safety net for the business and the whole testing process can build awareness among employees and executives.


Abby S. De Lotto, MBCP, is a senior consultant and project director with Strohl Systems (www.strohlsystems.com), the global leader in the business continuity planning software and services market. As a senior practitioner of more than 17 years, she has extensive crisis planning experience and in-depth knowledge of business continuity methods and practices. She has been published in numerous periodicals on a variety of disaster recovery and business continuity topics. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..