The importance of practicing a plan cannot be overemphasized. It solidifies employees' grasp of the plan, assists employees in recognizing they may need assistance in an emergency, and unveils weaknesses in emergency planning through a comprehensive analysis of employee feedback. To this end, it is imperative that all people participate and provide feedback regarding the successes and failures of a drill.
While conducting standard drills is important, varying the drills and imbedding "stumbling blocks" is vital to helping employees prepare for the unexpected. Both announced and unannounced drills should be conducted several times a year. Drills should vary (evacuation and shelter-in-place [SIP]) and pose a variety of challenges, such as closed off hallways/stairwells, blocked doors, or unconscious individuals, along designated evacuation routes.
Practice does make a difference. In 1993, during the World Trade Center bombing, a woman could not discern how to leave the building until two co-workers came by and reminded her about the evacuation chair under her desk. Human factor studies support the idea of practice: people tend to come and go from the same place using the same route.
- Establish regular opportunities to practice agency plans for both evacuation and shelter-in-place.
- Ensure that all employees are familiar with the established shelter-in-place procedures and evacuation routes. For visitors and customers, consider posting the plans and exit routes in public areas, and provide prepared "tip sheets" to visitors on days that drills are planned.
- Many occupants may ignore or avoid the drills, since there are often no penalties for not participating. Encourage everyone to participate in practice drills.
Example: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finalizing computer-based training modules on the agency's Occupant Emergency Plan, which will be available to all headquarters' employees online. The training includes floor plans and maps for all headquarters buildings.
- Vary the type of drills and the time at which they occur. For unannounced drills, it may be helpful to appoint key people that know when the drill will occur, especially managers and supervisors of individuals with disabilities. They can assist in evaluating all that happens and in developing appropriate action steps.
- Consider establishing a policy allowing visitors and staff to quickly exit the building during practice drills under extenuating circumstances.
Note: Visitors may not want to be detained during a SIP drill. Those who intended to be in the building for only a brief time (e.g., delivering a document) and have other commitments may protest about participating in such drills. Consider establishing a safe exit route for such exceptions.
- Place roadblocks, such as blocked entrances," injured" individuals, or unusable stairwells along exit routes and in the midst of SIP drills. This will provide an opportunity for individuals to learn new routes and help them avoid complacency.
- Conduct regular debriefings to determine how improvements can be made to the plans, and provide opportunities for employees to provide feedback related to what did and did not work.
Example: The U.S. Department of Defense/Defense Intelligence Agency (DOD/DIA) plan contains an innovative system of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of DIA's emergency preparedness plan. A red, yellow, and green grading system is used. A grade of yellow indicates that modifications in specific areas are needed, while a grade of red requires all personnel involved in an area to be retrained regarding the DIA emergency preparedness plan.
- An agency plan should be viewed as a living document. Establish a procedure for reviewing feedback from drills and incorporating approved changes into the agency plan. The plan must be continually revised and updated to reflect changes in technology and procedures. Both research and practice drills are essential to continuously strengthening a plan.
Example:At the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) headquarters, lessons learned from drills, practices, and other issues that present themselves are reviewed by facilities, security, and emergency support personnel. The Department's Civil Rights organizations are also consulted on these matters. Additionally, the civil rights organizations often raise specific concerns with the above-identified personnel. The DOT emergency preparedness plan is continually updated. Employees are regularly educated on the substance of the plan, and the equipment is consistently updated.
Example: One process born out of the DOD/DIA plan is identifying training programs geared toward DIA emergency personnel (e.g., floor wardens) and requiring them in turn to train other DIA employees.
There are three types of drills: walkthrough drills, scheduled drills, and unannounced drills.
- Walkthrough drills: These allow personnel to discuss possible difficulties and slowly practice evacuation techniques. For example, people might practice using an evacuation chair or carrying someone.
- Scheduled Drills: Such drills provide an opportunity to practice evacuating people with disabilities in a slow and controlled environment. The procedures are methodically practiced by all.
- Unannounced Drills: It is critical that unannounced drills occur only after scheduled drills. This ensures that the problems are corrected, and people do not practice incorrectly. In addition, it is important that surprise drills are not held when emotions are high (e.g., around the anniversary of September 11th or following a highly-publicized criminal case). Edwina Juillet, Co-Founder of the National Taskforce on Fire/Life Safety for People with Disabilities, recommends that emergency response staff (e.g., Floor Wardens) be notified prior to such drills, so that they can practice their responsibilities.
- Does the agency have a clearly established policy regarding the regular and continual practice of emergency preparedness plans? If not, is a policy in the process of being established? If so, does the policy include both evacuation and SIP?
- Has the agency met and exceeded these requirements?
- Have first-responders been involved in multiple practice drills and/or has their feedback been solicited regularly on practice drills? Have they been consulted to ensure that equipment is as current as possible?
- Has an effort been made to ensure that drills are both varied in type and time of day?
- Have various roadblocks been incorporated into all types of drills?
- Are people with disabilities expected and able to participate fully in all drills?
- Does the agency have an established policy for employees or visitors who may need to leave the building during a practice drill?