Can exercises ever prepare us for the real thing?

The most resilient organisations, quite rightly, spend considerable time, energy and resources in testing and exercising their emergency plans. There really is no better way to train staff, stress test facilities, and build capability to deal with the impacts of a real crisis when it happens. But can exercises really prepare us for the pressure and pace of the real thing?

How many of us have fallen victim to the delightfully termed ‘exercisitis’ - where being part of an exercise itself overtakes the pursuit of the objectives we are trying to achieve?

I can't count the number of times I've been deep in the middle of a (simulated) response, only for the exercise to be stopped to allow a timeshift or a pre-arranged meeting to take place, because ‘that was how the exercise was designed to go’. When this happens, focus is all too easily lost, along with the sense of pressure that responding to a real life crisis can bring.

“Be reasonable”, I hear you cry, “we can only afford to do so much.” Very true, and especially the case when you are trying to ensure that busy senior managers are able to play their part. But we must accept that exercises produce a naturally false state, and that participation in them is not in itself the panacea that will make us and our teams ready to face a real crisis situation, despite what our long list of objectives state.

It is our role as exercise planners to ensure we set clear and realistic expectations about what an exercise can deliver - striking the right balance between making the best use of finite team resources and ensuring that the right crisis management skills are being tested and nurtured. We also need to make sure that exercises form part of a wider programme of resilience building activity, encouraging staff at all levels of seniority to take ownership of our response plans, actually using our backup systems to ensure they work etc. - in other words, making our emergency response feel as normal as day to day working.

For those of us that are not front line emergency responders, it is very difficult to expose our teams to the pressure of a real emergency. Instead, a comprehensive programme of activity will make our emergency response plans second nature, and make recovery from future emergencies easier.


Rob Doran is the Owner and Director of Black Dog Crisis Management, working with businesses, the emergency services and the voluntary sector to build resilience capability.